Pressures Build on the New Budget

April 1, 1998
Air Force leaders are testing a bold proposition this spring as they present their 1999 budget request to Congress. The service during recent years emphasized operations, maintenance, training, and the like over modernization of weapons. This, it is said, kept USAF fighting units ready to meet the blistering pace of post-Cold War operations.

F. Whitten Peters, Acting Secretary of the Air Force, does not disagree that current readiness is critical. However, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 12, in times of budget austerity, “We must assume some risk in current readiness in order to pay for modernization that is key to future security.”

Accordingly, USAF shaped its new budget to boost modernization by a considerable amount. Procurement bottomed out in 1997, at $14.7 billion. Then, this year, it will begin to turn up, rising to $15.8 billion. The proposed amount for 1999, $17.5 billion, would increase procurement outlays by another 11 percent over this year’s level. Combined procurement and research and development spending comes in at $31.1 billion.

The unusual part was that USAF took this step even as worries mounted about slipping readiness. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Peters and Gen. Michael E. Ryan, USAF Chief of Staff, that the panel was “very concerned” about readiness indicators. The prime question is whether, as Peters said, “Ultimately, readiness improvements will depend on modernization.”

Peters said that, at present, 91 percent of USAF’s combat units are in C-1 or C-2 readiness status and that front-line units in Europe and the Pacific boast higher ratings. Even so, he and Ryan freely acknowledged that USAF readiness indicators are dropping. For example, aircraft mission capable rates have fallen 6.8 percent since the Gulf War. Engine readiness is down. Pilot retention, said Peters, is a “grave concern.”

According to the USAF leaders, the causes of readiness problems are many and complex. Maintenance of engines suffered as a result of turmoil in the logistics workforce and shortages of spare parts. Depot work was disrupted by moves to new locations. In response, USAF invested in new engines for certain high-use aircraft. The service planned to reactivate a TF-39 engine repair facility at Travis AFB, Calif., in an effort to improve engine reliability on the C-5 transport.

The Real Problem

However, Peters made clear that these are considered stopgap measures, steps that do not address the underlying problem-a decade of underfunding in the aircraft and hardware accounts that has led to a graying inventory. “Across our fleet,” he argued, “old age has increased the difficulty of keeping aircraft running and has raised the cost of readiness.”

Ryan agreed. “The mission capability rates of our operational flying units have dropped seven percent in the last eight years,” he reported. “I attribute that to the aging nature of our aircraft. In 1999, the average age of an Air Force aircraft will be 20 years old. Predicting the breakage rate is getting harder and harder. That’s why modernization is so important to us and our future readiness.”

This tug-of-war between current and future readiness seems sure to continue throughout Congress’ review of the new Pentagon budget, the first to be based explicitly on the results of 1997’s Quadrennial Defense Review. The budget Defense Secretary William S. Cohen unveiled on Feb. 2 seeks $257.3 billion for DoD in Fiscal 1999, which starts Oct. 1.

This would represent a one-year real drop of $2.8 billion from the Fiscal 1998 level and mark the 14th straight year that US defense spending has fallen. Plans call for real defense spending to be flat in 2000 and for years afterward. The 1999 budget is part of a six-year blueprint projecting total spending of $1.55 trillion during the years 1998-2003.

In contrast with previous years, DoD’s procurement account actually enjoys a boost. DoD’s plan provides $48.7 billion for procurement of new weapons and other systems. Projections call for weapon purchases to hit $61.3 billion in 2001, achieving the $60 billion goal previously set by the Administration.

USAF’s share comes to $76.7 billion which, in real terms, marks a small increase-about one percent-over this year’s $75.8 billion. Everything is relative, however. As recently as 1989, the service’s budget was $121 billion, in 1999 dollars.

The Air Force’s new spending plan breaks out into these categories: research and development, $13.6 billion; procurement, $17.5 billion; operations and maintenance, $24.4 billion; military personnel, $19.5 billion; and construction and family housing, $2.1 billion. The aggregate is reduced by $440 million in offsetting receipts.

Airlift and Tankers

Once again, airlift modernization dominated the annual Air Force procurement proposal.

The new budget allots $3.2 billion to procure 13 new C-17 airlifters and to fund their spare parts, R&D, and basing support construction. DoD has an official requirement for 120 C-17s. Air Force budget documents maintain that getting large numbers of the new lifter into the force is USAF’s No. 1 near-term need. USAF plans to spend $13.2 billion more for C-17s, with the 120th aircraft to be purchased in 2003.

In addition, the Air Force has programmed almost half a billion dollars to carry out C-5 engine and avionics upgrades, declaring that the service is optimistic about the result of these changes.

The Air Force also will spend $126 million to continue to buy a single new C-130J tactical airlifter, one that it did not ask for.

Aerial refuelers also get attention. The budget provides $291 million to modify aging KC-135 aircraft in the active force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve Command. The 1999 investment in the PACER CRAG program upgrades the avionics suites of 121 KC-135s with state-of-the-art glass cockpit systems.

Fighter-Attack Aircraft

The Air Force’s fighter of the future gets its procurement start in the new spending plan.

The Pentagon budgeted $2.4 billion for the F-22 program in Fiscal 1999, enough to continue with full development efforts and to pay for the first two production aircraft. Pentagon officials envision a steady increase in funding for the F-22 over the next several years, allotting $2.7 billion in 2000; $3.3 billion in 2001; $3.8 billion in 2002; and $4.3 billion in 2003.

The Air Force fighter fleet is aging. By late 2004, when the F-22 enters into service, the F-15 will be 30 years old.

The Air Force will spend heavily on yet another combat aircraft program-the Joint Strike Fighter, which is expected to produce new fighters for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Britain’s Royal Navy. USAF plans to commit $456 million of a Pentagon-wide total of $920 million to continue development of the JSF. The Navy provides the rest.

In a surprise move, the Air Force plans to buy no new F-15Es or F-16s, though it is short of attrition reserve aircraft for both types of fighters. Service officials said they would like to have more, but there was no money.

USAF budgeted some $300 million in Fiscal 1999 for yet another type of theater combat aircraft-the Attack Laser.

The YAL-1A, the prototype designation, is a jumbo jet equipped with a high-energy laser, that would attack threatening ballistic missiles in their boost phase and perhaps be capable of shooting down aircraft.

The Air Force expects to spend $1.4 billion over the next five years to develop the Attack Laser technologies and hardware.

(In other services, the Pentagon also emphasized aviation. DoD planned in 1999 to commit $3.2 billion for the development and procurement of 30 more Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters. In addition, DoD would provide $1.1 billion to procure seven Marine Corps V-22 aircraft.)

Battlefield Awareness

DoD’s battlefield awareness investments include major Air Force programs designed to provide detailed, timely information on air and surface battles. Among them: $654.4 billion for two more E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft in 1999, the final systems in what is now a planned fleet of 13 Joint STARS aircraft.

As part of the budget debate, however, DoD and Congress are discussing the possibility of increasing the Joint STARS purchase. Cohen last year cut the planned buy from 19 to 13, but he now says, “We have to go back and see what we can work out.” Senators and Congressmen of both parties have urged Cohen to approve the purchase of more E-8Cs.

Other investments include:

  • $732 million for continued development of the Space-Based Infrared Satellite (SBIRS) system, successor to the Defense Support Program warning satellite.
  • $550.9 million for the Milstar satellite follow-on system.
  • $258.6 million for the Global Positioning System, about half of which will go toward buying additional satellites, and the other half will fund more research.
  • $142.4 million to complete the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System upgrade to Block 30/35 electronic support measures, Central Computer Memory Upgrade, Joint Tactical Information Distribution System, and GPS. The Radar System Improvement Program continues.
  • $619.8 million for Predator, Global Hawk, and DarkStar unmanned aerial vehicles for air surveillance system and several ground stations.

Heavy Bombers

Long-range airpower was barely visible in the new Pentagon spending plan. The budget contains $376.3 million to continue work associated with the B-2 stealth bomber and its systems, though USAF is prohibited from spending any of that money on additional aircraft. The Administration provided no funds for B-2s beyond the 21 previously authorized.

The new budget contains some $91.6 million to continue to modify the fleet of B-1 bombers for conventional theater war.

“We, of course, would like to have more long-range systems,” said Peters in testimony to the Senate. “We would like to have more short-range systems also, because there are issues that go into how long you want to run an operation and the number of sorties that you want to put across, as opposed to one strike in and one strike out.”

Money also flowed to precision guided munitions. Another $399 million is earmarked in 1999 for procurement of four types of precision weapons-the Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile, the Joint Standoff Weapon, the Joint Direct Attack Munition, and the Sensor Fuzed Weapon. The money will buy 3,258 PGMs.

USAF Active and Reserve

USAF’s active duty strength at the end of 1997-the latest complete fiscal year-stood at 377,000 troops. Plans call for the service to cut another 5,000 this year, dropping the total to 372,000, and then in Fiscal 1999 to trim another 1,000 members. The level at the end of 1999 would be 371,000.

However, the QDR established a new and lower projected figure of 339,000 troops in 2003, meaning USAF must shed another 32,000 active duty members during the period 2000-03.

When the Air Force achieves the lower projected level, it will be 44 percent smaller than it was at its Reagan-era peak of 608,000. New reductions require Congressional approval.

The latest USAF budget provides for a combined military force of 181,200 in Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command–107,000 Guardsmen and 74,200 Reservists.

ANG will operate 1,170 aircraft and pull 357,800 flying hours in the interceptor, tactical airlift, air refueling, general-purpose fighter, and reconnaissance missions.

AFRC, with 60 flying units and 393 aircraft, will provide 100 percent of the Air Force’s weather reconnaissance, 50 percent of its strategic airlift, and 30 percent of the air rescue and medical airlift capability.


The Air Force’s Fiscal 1999 O&M funding-$24.4 billion-supports the day-to-day activity of 20 fighter wing equivalents, 87 major installations, 4,874 primary authorized aircraft, 550 intercontinental ballistic missiles, and 24 Global Positioning Satellites. It funds 1.8 million flying hours.

Flying time in 1999 for active Air Force fighter and attack aircrews has been set at 19.1 hours per month, up slightly from 18.7 this year but down from 19.3 the year before. Bomber crews, which flew about 20 hours per month in 1997, will get only 17.9 hours per month in 1999, but this is not viewed as a worrisome problem.

DoD funded many programs to acquire or hold on to high-quality personnel. In military pay accounts, it proposed the full legal pay hike of 3.1 percent in 1999 and three percent for each of the ensuing four years. The budget also funds improvements to military “quality-of-life” factors such as housing, medical services, child care, and other important benefits.

USAF is deeply concerned that both pilot and navigator retention rates have declined each of the past three years. Since 1995, pilot retention has fallen from 87 to 71 percent and navigator retention has slipped from 86 to 73 percent.

Leading indicators are also showing increasingly downward trends. The number of pilots accepting Aviator Continuation Pay is down from 59 percent in 1996 to 33 percent as of mid-January 1998. In 1994, the figure was 81 percent.

Despite problems, military leaders maintain that the forces were ready for war. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 3: “It is my assessment … that we are within an acceptable band of readiness and risk in the context of our national military strategy of two Major Theater Wars, and we are ready to execute that strategy.”

End Strengths

Since the big drawdown began in the late 1980s, federal officials and lawmakers have approved a net reduction of 755,000 active duty troops. The large US force of 2,174,000 deployed at the end of Fiscal 1987 will have shrunk to 1,419,000 by Sept. 30, 1998. That constitutes a drop of some 35 percent. Plans call for the uniformed military in Fiscal 1999 to lose another 23,000 active duty troops over the next year, with the force to level off at 1,396,000.

The 1999 budget contains few significant force-structure changes. The QDR decided not to touch the Army’s 10 active and eight National Guard divisions, the Navy’s 12 aircraft carriers, or the Marine Corp’s three active and one reserve division. The Air Force, however, will transfer one active duty fighter wing into reserve status, leaving USAF with 12 active and eight reserve wings sometime after the turn of the century.

The Air Force plans to maintain a bomber fleet of 94 B-52s, 93 B-1Bs, and 21 B-2s. Of these, 44 B-52s and 48 B-1s are primary mission aircraft, meaning that they are fully funded in terms of operations and maintenance, load crews, and spare parts, and are ready for immediate deployment.

All of the B-52s and B-1s in the inventory, including those in attrition reserve, will be kept in flyable condition and will receive planned modifications. DoD plans to reduce the B-52 inventory to 71 aircraft (44 primary mission) in 1999. B-1 primary mission aircraft will rise to 70 by 2001.

The USAF airlift fleet of 1999 will consist of 37 C-17s, 135 C-141s, 104 C-5s, and 414 C-130s (all aircraft assigned for performance of wartime missions). The long-range tanker force consists of 472 KC-135 and 54 KC-10 Air Force primary mission aircraft.

The Pentagon seeks $4 billion for the Ballistic Missile Defense program in 1999 and $12.8 billion during the four-year period 2000-03. Funds were added as a result of the QDR.