Washington Watch

March 1, 2011

Top Five List

After a long absence, a new bomber is back on the Air Force’s list of its top five acquisition priorities, but turbulence in the F-35 program may see some of the other priorities swapped around in the months ahead.

The list was announced by Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley in January, as a preview of the defense budget released in mid-February. Speaking to a group in Arlington, Va., comprising mainly industry officials, local Air Force Association members, and air attaches, Donley called the list a “broader summary” of USAF investment priorities.

Topping the list—as it has for most of the last decade—is the KC-X tanker, which Donley said remains “central to joint, interagency, and coalition operations in peace and at war.” Final offers were submitted by Boeing and EADS North America in February; members of Congress have said they expect a tanker selection to be announced sometime this month.

The second priority for the Air Force is the F-35A fighter. The service is depending on the F-35 program to replace its F-16s, which are aging out of service at a rapid rate. Donley said a slowdown of the F-35 program directed by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates—to allow more testing and development before full-rate production—means that the Air Force is almost certain to have to fund a service life extension program, or SLEP, of the F-16 fleet.

“We are committing resources [to] that” in the Future Years Defense Program, Donley explained. Although it was not certain in January whether an F-16 SLEP would go forward, “I think that question is more of a ‘how much’ and ‘when’ and ‘what kind’ rather than ‘if,’ ” he said.

The third priority on the list is intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance. Specifically, the Air Force is planning to replace most, if not all, of its MQ-1 Predator remotely piloted aircraft with larger, more capable MQ-9 Reapers. Donley said such an effort was in doubt until recently, due to tight funds, but the identification of $34 billion in overhead and process savings throughout the Air Force has freed the money up to buy the “most advanced” Reapers. The Air Force continues to move toward a goal of having 48 Reaper “orbits”—a 24-hour-a-day capability over a given area—by the end of Fiscal 2011 and 65 by the end of Fiscal 2013.

The new penetrating bomber element of a long-range strike “family” of systems is now the fourth-highest acquisition priority for the Air Force, Donley said. That broad description also encompasses “ISR, … electronic attack weapons, and communications.” He said the need for secrecy would prevent the Air Force from revealing too many details of the new program.

The bomber was absent from Air Force priority lists for several years, the most recent being one mentioned last fall, which placed military space systems at No. 4.

“In contrast to the program that was canceled in 2009,” Donley said, referring to the Next Generation Bomber, “development of this new bomber will leverage more mature technologies [which] we think will reduce the risk in the program, allow us to deliver with greater confidence, on schedule and in quantities sufficient to support the long-term sustainment of long-range bomber capabilities after the current fleets of B-1s and B-52s retire.”

He added, “We’ll constrain the requirements for this platform, and there is certainly more emphasis on affordability.” The aircraft will be designed primarily for a conventional mission, with nuclear capability added as a later block improvement.

On Donley’s list, space systems—specifically, “space control and space situational awareness capabilities”—now weigh in as the fifth priority. The Air Force is focusing on “stronger management of our space programs to ensure we operate effectively in the increasingly competitive, congested and contested space domain that has been described in our national policy and our National Security Space Strategy documents.”

The new priorities list is almost the same as the one issued in 2006, with the exception of the then-No. 2 item: a new combat search and rescue helicopter. That program, described by then-Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley as a “moral imperative” to ensure timely recovery of downed airmen, has disappeared. The CSAR-X program has for now been replaced by a plan to field a modestly improved version of the current HH-60 Pave Hawk.

Air Force officials said the new priorities list may change yet again before too long. The F-16 SLEP may assume such cost and prominence that it will warrant its own spot among the top priorities, bumping space control systems off the top five list.

Costly Unfinished Business

In an unusual sign of unity after several years of contentious relations, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and the defense industry called on Congress in January to quickly pass the Fiscal 2011 defense appropriations bill, signaling a financial train wreck if the Pentagon had to continue operating under a continuing resolution.

Gates said the Defense Department was in a deepening “crisis” because Congress had not gotten around to finalizing the 2011 budget but instead was forcing the department to continue operating at 2010 spending levels. Gates, speaking with reporters en route to Ottawa, Canada, said the practical effect of the continuing resolution was a $23 billion cut to defense spending.

“I have a crisis on my doorstep,” Gates said. The Pentagon’s Fiscal 2011 budget request was $549 billion, but 2010 spending levels totaled $526 billion.

Defense and aerospace industry groups—including AFA—as well as individual company CEOs signed letters to new House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), urging him to get Congress to take a final vote on the spending bill.

In Washington in December, Gates had said that without action, the Pentagon would be “without the resources and flexibility needed to meet vital military requirements,” a statement the industry groups quoted in their letter to Boehner.

They said the absence of a formal spending bill would cost jobs, cause production breaks in major weapon systems, and incur costly delays in development programs.

While the actual shortfall would be about $19 billion, the $23 billion figure quoted by Gates is due to the higher levels of spending on health care and personnel costs. These are “fact of life” bills that must be paid and which are growing, placing “additional strains on the department,” the industry groups said.

The Pentagon is not the only department affected, and the industry groups voiced their similar concerns for critical programs at NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, and other government agencies.

A similar letter was signed by the CEOs of 14 major defense and aerospace contractors, noting not only the immediate effects of the continuing resolution, but that the repercussions on programs would be felt “for many years to come.”

One side effect of the CR would be that spending would continue on programs the Pentagon and NASA have identified for termination—literally throwing good money after bad.

Congress instructed the various agencies to spend at 2010 levels at least until the fourth of this month, but there was no promise of quick action to address the situation. In fact, a number of new members, particularly those under the “Tea Party” standard, have urged that government spending as a whole be rolled back to 2008 levels. Many have also called for defense, as one of the largest federal accounts, to bear its share of the austerity.

The Pentagon has already offered $78 billion in spending reductions over the coming five years. Gates instructed the armed services and defense agencies last summer to find overhead efficiency savings of, collectively, $100 billion over the five-year plan, promising they could keep the savings and redirect them to combat and modernization needs.

The various DOD agencies responded with nearly $180 billion in efficiencies—counting federal pay freezes and including troop reductions—of which Gates allowed them to keep the promised $100 billion and offered much of the rest toward federal deficit reduction. He accurately predicted that some members of Congress would greet the figure by saying the Pentagon hadn’t done enough cutting, while others would say, “We’ve gone too far.”

Anticipating a drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, Gates has called for a reduction in the size of the Army and Marine Corps of about 42,000 troops; the Air Force and Navy would hold at currently authorized levels. He also terminated a Marine Corps amphibious vehicle and slowed, but did not terminate several other programs.

One member of Congress who objected to Gates’ cuts—specifically, planned troop cuts, which would not go into effect until 2015—was Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. As long as the war in Afghanistan is ongoing, McKeon said, it’s nonsensical to talk about cutting troop levels.

In a January hearing, McKeon said he won’t support any plan “that will leave our military less capable and less ready to fight.” Separately, McKeon fired back at media editorials that suggested congressional opposition to cutting defense was merely a manifestation of pork-barrel politics. It is not Congress’ place, he wrote, to simply “rubber stamp” the wishes of the Defense Secretary.

Gates told reporters in late January a continuing resolution is “the worst of all possible kinds of reductions” being discussed, as it would not be done with thought and care.

“Frankly, that’s how you hollow out a military, even in wartime,” he said.

From a Thousand Cuts

Air Force officials said if they are forced to operate on a continuing resolution throughout this year, they would have to tap modernization programs to pay housekeeping bills, to the tune of $5.8 billion: $1.2 billion in personnel and $4.6 billion in operations and maintenance.

That would cut deeply into newly announced plans to buy additional MQ-9 Reapers and equipping the entire F-15E fleet with new advanced radars. The service also could potentially reduce its planned buy of F-35 fighters, already planned for a Gates-directed slowdown to allow more testing time before full-rate production. The effect could be that the Air Force would buy only 10 F-35As in 2011, instead of the 23 planned. That, in turn, would exacerbate the growing shortage of fighters caused by the aging-out of the F-16, which the F-35 is to replace.

Potentially even more disruptive would be the effect on the KC-X tanker program, which the Air Force hopes to finally get launched this month. The Fiscal 2010 spending level for KC-X is about $300 million, less than half the $863 million the service needs to get a contractor on contract and developing the new aircraft in Fiscal 2011. Already nearly a decade behind schedule, the Air Force can scarcely afford further delays in the KC-X.

In February, US Transportation Command chief Gen. Duncan J. McNabb said, relative to new machines with new engines, the existing tanker fleet is using old technology that wastes fuel. He urged no further disruptions to the tanker acquisition effort.

Other major USAF programs potentially thrown off track without an appropriations bill include the C-130J, the Light Mobility Aircraft, and a Wideband Global Satellite.