HAC Downsizes USAF Pet Projects in 2020 Bill

An E-8C Joint STARS assigned to Robins AFB, Ga., prepares to take off Jan. 24, 2019 at Nellis AFB, Nev. Air Force photo by A1C Bailee A. Darbasie.

House appropriators aren’t sold on the need to fund three high-priority Air Force development projects intended to help tackle counterterrorism missions and “great power competition” simultaneously.

The House Appropriations Committee’s version of the fiscal 2020 defense spending bill, released May 20, offers no money for the Air Force’s light attack experiment. The service asked for $35 million to keep considering its options after saying partner nations want something other than the two turboprop aircraft that prevailed in the program. Officials plan to start buying Sierra Nevada A-29s and Textron AT-6Bs this fall.

Lawmakers call the request to spend money on further experimentation unjustified. Last year, appropriators and authorizers disagreed on how much to offer the program but ultimately decided to put $300 million toward early procurement.

Light attack aircraft are touted as a cornerstone of the Air Force’s effort to strengthen partnerships with other countries and turn over more counterterrorism responsibilities to local forces, as well as a way to free up more advanced platforms to train for potential conflict with Russia and China.

Two other programs would see their funding shrink by about one-third, according to the report accompanying the HAC bill. Multidomain command-and-control research efforts, one of Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein’s top three focus areas, would receive just over $100 million in the bill, down from USAF’s ask of $150.9 million. The $50 million cut is due to unjustified growth, lawmakers said.

After studying the issue in 2017, the Air Force wants to develop a common C2 system that builds on the existing Air Operations Center and presents air, space, and cyber combat options in new ways. But such an MDC2 system will eventually need to pull in capabilities from across the Defense Department, and the service is still in the early stages of talking to industry about each piece of the puzzle.

Similarly, Advanced Battle Management System funds would fall from the $35.6 million request to around $25 million because the Air Force lacks a clear path forward, according to the report.

The service recently brought on Preston Dunlap, a former national security analyst at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, to build a blueprint for a new way of doing battle management that can replace the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System, and potentially other legacy big-wing ISR platforms.

ABMS aims to connect sensors across several aircraft, ground systems, and satellites to form a comprehensive picture of targets on the air, sea, and land, rather than relying on modernized versions of the E-8 and E-3 fleets for that mission.

When the Air Force formalized its decision to drop the JSTARS recapitalization program last year, amid worries that a new fleet would be vulnerable to enemy air defenses, budget documents laid out upgrades to the MQ-9, E-3, and Control and Reporting Centers that are the seeds of a three-part ABMS development plan stretching into the 2040s. Though the Air Force believes new sensors and networking capabilities would bring the vision to life, what exactly those could be is still murky.

Air Combat Command is expected to finish a new analysis this summer that fleshes out ABMS’s air target tracking skills, the Government Accountability Office confirmed May 2. Inside Defense reported in October 2017 the analysis of alternatives would begin in late fiscal 2018 and end this year, but the start was pushed back to the first quarter of 2019.

“Air Force officials explained that they plan to utilize an existing AOA completed for the JSTARS recapitalization program, approved in May 2012, to identify and assess ABMS’s potential ground target tracking capabilities,” GAO added. “Originally planned as a nine-month study, Air Force officials stated that the ABMS AOA was shortened to a six-month effort. As a result, the Air Force received conditional approval to reduce the number of alternatives studied from five to three.”

While the service hasn’t established a price baseline for ABMS, it estimates the cross-program effort will cost $3.8 billion through 2024. Inside Defense reported last year that the service projected ABMS needed $2.7 billion through 2023.

“The Air Force expects to start phase 2 in 2024 by integrating advanced sensors and software into its existing battle management command-and-control platforms while at the same time retiring JSTARS,” GAO said. “The third phase, planned for the mid-2030s, is expected to provide multi-sensor, resilient battle management command and control capability using multiple types of communications methods, with an initial operational capability planned for 2035.”

Other forward-looking programs fared better in the HAC bill: lawmakers fully funded and even added money to fighter procurement, hypersonic and directed-energy weapons development, and other key areas. Senate appropriators and defense authorizers in both congressional chambers have yet to release their 2020 legislation.