The Austerity Budget Hits the Hill

June 1, 2012

As he was making his rounds on Capitol Hill following the release of the Pentagon’s budget request for next year, Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley painted a stark and detailed picture of his fleet.

The service, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 20, is in desperate need of modernized aircraft. The average age of the fighters is 22 years, while many Air Force cargo aircraft have been flying since the 1970s and many aerial refueling tankers date to the Eisenhower era. But like every military service, the Air Force is feeling a squeeze on its budgets, straining plans to buy new gear. The Defense Department is trimming its planned spending over the next decade by $487 billion—and the department may be forced to double that if a sharply divided Congress cannot come up with a deficit-reduction plan by January 2013.

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley answers questions during a congressional hearing. Donley says USAF has “an extreme requirement for modernization.” (USAF photo by Jim Varhegyi)

Topline budgets are coming down after a decade of growth fueled by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force request for Fiscal 2013, including war spending, totals $154.3 billion—down from $162.5 billion this year. “So we have an extreme requirement for modernization that will be very difficult to meet in this budget environment, but we must protect those core capabilities for the future so the Air Force continues to get better over time,” Donley explained.

Still, the Air Force’s priorities have remained largely the same, even as its budgets decline. The F-35 strike fighter, KC-46 tanker, and new nuclear-capable bomber remain at the top of the procurement wish list, just as they have for the last several years.

The 2013 budget slows down the procurement timeline for the F-35, but the goal of ultimately buying 2,443 fifth generation fighters to replace aging jets in the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps fleet remains the same. “We remain fully committed to the F-35,” Donley said at the Pentagon, Feb. 3. “This is a ‘must do’ for our armed forces.”

Holding No Illusions

Air Force officials, meanwhile, have acknowledged that the first of the service’s 80 to 100 new bombers may initially be certified only for conventional missions—a cost-saving measure that takes some of the early risk out of a program that is little more than a concept at this time. The initial operational capability for the bomber, which will replace aging B-2s and B-52s, isn’t until the mid-2020s. But as with most major procurement programs, the run-up to production requires a lengthy and significant investment of time and resources. The service has requested $300 million in its Fiscal 2013 budget proposal as seed money for the bomber, on which it expects to spend $6.3 billion over the next five years.

For the tanker, which is based on a Boeing Co. 767 aircraft, the Air Force has requested $1.8 billion in research and development spending. The program’s annual costs will increase sharply as the service prepares to purchase the 179 new airframes. The service argues it needs a replacement tanker as soon as possible, for without it USAF will no longer be a global fighting force.

With these and other big-ticket items requiring billions annually, the Air Force must find savings elsewhere. The Air Force wants to divest itself of 230 fighter, mobility, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft next year. This is a large first step toward a total of 286 aircraft retirements, yielding $8.7 billion in savings, over the next five years.

USAF is also cutting its end strength by 9,900 personnel—with more than half of those billets coming from the Air National Guard. Officials have argued they are maintaining a balanced mix of active and reserve forces, and the reductions align the force structure with a new defense strategy the Pentagon revealed earlier this year. But it’s proving to be a tough sell on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are loathe to see manpower decreases in their respective Air Guard units.

“We hold no illusions that these personnel reductions affecting all 54 states and territories will be easy,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz told the House Appropriations defense subcommittee March 6. “Taken comprehensively, however, this recalibration will robust almost 40 units across the Air National Guard and thus enhance overall Total Force readiness.”

One of the Air Force’s budget decisions that lawmakers are finding particularly curious is the service’s plan to park 18 Global Hawk Block 30 drones at the service’s “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz. In their place, Air Force officials want to keep flying venerable U-2 manned spyplanes, which first deployed in 1956 but are, on average, 28 years old.

After listening to Air Force leaders bemoan the age of their fleet, lawmakers are demanding they explain why they’re opting for the U-2 over the Global Hawk. The Block 30s, after all, are brand-new aircraft and reflect the service’s increasing reliance on unmanned aircraft, particularly for intelligence missions. Indeed, four of the Block 30s the Air Force wants to mothball are still in production—and will be transferred directly from Northrop Grumman Corp.’s lines to Davis-Monthan without ever having flown a mission.

Many of the other 14 Global Hawks tagged for the boneyard have been tapped for missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, as well as the military’s humanitarian relief effort following last year’s devastating earthquake in Japan.

The decisions, lawmakers say, simply won’t resonate among increasingly cost conscious taxpayers who don’t want to see the billions already invested in the aircraft go to waste. “When I have to talk to my constituents and the taxpayers, and I say, ‘Yes, we’ve got these really cool surveillance Global Hawks that are going to take the place of this 50-year-old plane. We’ve got 14 of them made, but now we’ve made the decision to just park them in the garage somewhere’—you see, it’s hard for me to be able to explain that,” Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.) said at a Feb. 28 House Armed Services Committee hearing.

Others, such as Rep. Norman D. Dicks, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, want to see the aircraft put to use—even if it’s not the Air Force that’s flying them. Dicks has suggested that NATO, US special operations forces, or the Navy (whose Broad Area Maritime Surveillance drone is based on the same platform) could put the Block 30s to good use. “Our intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance is a high national priority,” Dicks said at a March 6 hearing with Air Force leaders. “So if the Air Force isn’t going to use them, we’ve got to find a home for them.”

The Air Force has been receptive to finding alternative uses for the Block 30s, one of several Global Hawk variants that specialize in capturing imagery and detecting electronic signals. But service officials remain clear that, given the state of the technology and the available funding, USAF no longer wants to fly the aircraft. After all, the decision to stand down the Block 30s and keep the U-2 flying played a big role in the service’s budget cuts, saving an estimated $2.5 billion over the next five years—most of which comes from stopping planned buys of any additional Block 30s.

A New Strategy

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz testifes before the House Appropriations defense subcommittee about USAF’s 2013 budget. Schwartz said the C-27J Spartan was the last program to be cut from the budget. (USN photo by Mass Comm. Spc. 1st Class Peter D. Lawlor)

Specifically, the Air Force expects $3.8 billion in total savings by parking the Block 30s. By comparison, updating the U-2s will cost just $1.3 billion through Fiscal 2017. Further fueling the decision, Air Force officials said, were changes in the joint military requirement for high-altitude ISR, which threw the new cost analysis in the U-2’s favor.

Last year, officials told Congress that the U-2 would cost $220 million more per year to operate than the Global Hawk, largely because more Dragon Lady spyplanes would be needed to do the work of one unmanned Block 30.

“Our conclusion was that we could get this work done with the U-2,” Donley told House appropriators. “While it does not have the persistence of the Global Hawk, the reduced overall requirements would still allow us to get the missions done and meet the operational tempo required, and the U-2 has in some areas a superior sensor which the Global Hawk does not.”

To save additional dollars, the Air Force is looking to make cuts in its strategic airlifter fleet, a move that requires consent from lawmakers who have historically been reluctant to retire airframes they believe are in high demand.

Last year, Congress agreed in the Fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill to grant the military’s request to cut the Air Force’s fleet of 316 C-17 and C-5 strategic airlifters to 301 aircraft. Now, USAF wants to further reduce that congressionally mandated number to 275 by retiring all but one remaining C-5A, the oldest in the airlifter fleet.

Military leaders have said the further reductions in strategic airlift reflect the military’s new strategy, which moves away from the idea that the military must be capable of fighting and defeating two major regional threats at the same time. “We have a new strategy. The force structure that is put forth supports that strategy,” Gen. William M. Fraser III, the commander of US Transportation Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “And it is also backed by some analysis that we have actually completed in looking at that strategy and also in working with the combatant commanders.”

Fraser added that the Air Force’s long-standing plan to have 52 more-modern C-5Ms will ultimately drive up mission capability rates and improve the military’s global transport capacity and capability—even if the actual size of the fleet is reduced.

Still, key lawmakers are leery of reducing the size of the airlifter fleet, which has been tapped heavily during the last decade of war.

“We need to be sure that the Air Force’s planned retirements do not leave us short of the strategic lift capability we need,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Aside from the C-5As, the Air Force also proposes retiring 65 C-130 intratheater cargo aircraft and 20 KC-135 tankers, decisions made at least in part because of planned personnel cuts and other military force structure reductions.

In a move similar to the Global Hawk decision, the Air Force plans to divest itself of 38 C-27Js, small cargo aircraft tagged for Air National Guard units with few, if any, miles on them. USAF has argued that its remaining fleet of 318 C-130s would ultimately be more cost-effective because the larger aircraft have a broader mission portfolio and do not rely on contractor logistics support, as the C-27Js do.

“I think we made the right strategic choice here,” Donley told the Senate Armed Services Committee, adding that the C-27 is a “nice-to-have” capability designed specifically to provide support to the Army.

The move to favor the C-130 reflects DOD’s preference for multirole platforms over more niche capabilities. Still, it was not an easy decision for the Air Force to make. Service leaders had previously pledged that they would support the C-27 program, and Schwartz said the Spartan airlifter was the last item to get cut from the service’s 2013 budget.

More Cuts Loom Large

Several lawmakers were perplexed by the Spartan decision and are trying to parse Air Force operational cost analyses comparing the two aircraft. Many on Capitol Hill consider the analysis inconsistent and confusing.

“Frankly, it’s been a dizzying six weeks going through these various numbers, and unfortunately it leaves me with the feeling that you’re trying to get this analysis to match a budget decision as made by the Air Force and, frankly, not based on some very important information,” Sen. Robert J. Portman (R), whose home state of Ohio would lose C-27s, said during a Senate hearing. “We’d love to see more than a PowerPoint slide. We’d love to see some consistent analysis.”

The C-27 represents just one of a multitude of cost-cutting decisions affecting the Air Guard, which some lawmakers believe was hit with a disproportionate share of the manpower and force structure reductions. Top Pentagon officials are working directly with the Council of Governors, a body President Obama established in January 2010, to devise alternate proposals that may be more palatable to states concerned about losing vital flying missions ranging from the C-27 to A-10 close air support aircraft.

“We are fully committed to the Total Force. We can’t do what we do for the nation without our Guard and Reserve components,” Donley told defense reporters in April. But “by putting additional capability into the reserve components we’ll put additional pressure on the reserve components to participate in the regular rotations that would potentially overstress that force. Since the Guardsmen and Reservists did not sign up for continuous mobilization or to be part of a real robust, active operational tempo, we wanted to make sure we kept both of those in balance,” he said.

Officials also note that while USAF’s Active Duty force has shrunk since 2005, the Air National Guard has not.

As lawmakers continue to break down the specifics of the Pentagon’s budget proposal for next year, the threat of additional cuts to the Defense Department’s accounts looms large. Under the Budget Control Act enacted last year, lawmakers must come up with a proposal to trim at least $1.2 trillion from the deficit over the next decade. If they fail, they will trigger automatic, across-the-board cuts within discretionary spending accounts.

For DOD, sequestration would mean another $492 billion slashed from its projected budget, starting in January 2013. Defense officials say they will start planning this summer in earnest for that possibility.

Military and civilian leaders alike are already painting the possibility of additional cuts as catastrophic and dangerous for the armed forces. Defense hawks on Capitol Hill—including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard P. McKeon (R-Calif.) and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee—are trying to overturn the sequestration trigger.

Despite concerns in both parties over the effects of larger and perhaps indiscriminate cuts to defense spending, their efforts have yet to pick up much steam. Many lawmakers want the trigger to remain in place to force both parties to compromise on a long-term deficit-reduction plan.

“We’ve reached out to a couple of folks, and what we’re getting is this business of, ‘Well, maybe we should just wait,’ ” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) told reporters.

If the sequestration were to hit the Defense Department, the Air Force would have to revisit modernization plans and rethink spending priorities. All major programs—including the F-35 and the new tanker—would be hit, Donley has said. The fleet, in short, would continue to age while aircraft replacements are pushed further and further into the future.

“To get this far, we have made tough decisions to align, structure, and balance our forces in a way that can meet the new strategic guidance,” Donley said. “If substantially more reductions are imposed on DOD, we will have to revisit the new strategy. We cannot afford the risk of a hollow force.”

Megan Scully is a national security reporter for National Journal in Washington, D.C. Her most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Nuke Fix, Phase II,” appeared in the March 2011 issue.