Here’s How a Three-Month CR—or Longer—Would Affect the Air Force

As Congress looks to delay passage of a new federal funding package until after the November election, the Air Force is warning that even a three-month gap would harm national defense.

“[Continuing resolutions] immediately disrupt major exercises and training events, affect readiness and maintenance, curtail hiring and recruitment actions, and adversely impact contracting negotiations,” Air Force spokesman Capt. Jacob N. Bailey said in a Sept. 24 email. 

A stopgap spending bill would also slow the service’s adoption of technology it wants to compete with other advanced militaries like those of Russia and China.

As the start of fiscal 2021 looms on Oct. 1, the wheels are already turning to get a continuing resolution in place to avoid a government shutdown. CRs have been invoked nearly every year for the past few decades, causing heartburn across the federal workforce.

House lawmakers on Sept. 22 passed a bill to keep the federal government open through Dec. 11. The Senate could hold a vote on that legislation next week, according to Politico. Congress may decide later to extend the funding freeze into 2021, and pass appropriations at the beginning of a possible second term for President Donald J. Trump or to kick off a first term for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden.

The Department of the Air Force wants about $169 billion in fiscal 2021, split between $153.6 billion for the Air Force and $15.4 billion for the Space Force. Under a CR, though, federal agencies must stretch their 2020 dollars until they run out. Congress can also make exceptions to let certain programs move forward.

A three-month CR would push back production of the manned E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node jet, which allows aircraft flying nearby to pass data to others in the area. The service wants to buy five new ones starting in fiscal 2021 to replace the EQ-4B drones, a Global Hawk variant used for the same mission.

If procurement is delayed, “the AF will be forced to join a waitlist for the next available opportunity to purchase an aircraft,” Bailey said. Bombardier builds the E-11A as a military version of its “Global Express” civil business jet.

The three-month CR would also drag out construction of the Consolidated Space Operations Facility at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo. Military space officials want the larger building to house both the Joint Task Force-Space Defense and the National Space Defense Center, amid growing demand for satellite and radar operators and intelligence analysts. Construction is supposed to finish in March 2022, but would take longer if the final $88 million does not arrive on time.

The effects of a CR would snowball if the funding delay stretches longer than three months, Bailey said.

A yearlong continuing resolution would block 48 new programs from starting, cut short production increases to seven aircraft and weapons, stop 19 military construction projects, stifle the service’s response and recovery efforts for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and limit the Air Force’s plan to grow its workforce by 1,500 people.

“CR funds will not cover current personnel costs, in addition to the 3 percent military pay raise, without further funding,” Bailey said. The Air Force wants an additional $2.5 billion on top of last year’s appropriations to expand F-35 Joint Strike Fighter operations, cyber mission defense teams, and global mobility forces. Without that boost, units will struggle to keep up with operations.

He added that a year’s worth of stopgap measures will interrupt the Air Force’s training pipeline and how those people spread across the force. That means the service can ask or force people to leave to remain solvent.

Department officials have also warned that a long-term CR will interfere with the Space Force’s attempt to get up and running as a full-fledged branch of the armed forces.

Under a yearlong CR, the Space Force’s GPS III Follow-On program would see a delay of at least one year to an upgrade that makes the satellite’s signals harder to jam. The service wants to buy two of the more advanced GPS systems in 2021.

To lessen the blow, the Space Force is asking Congress to provide $2.6 billion for operations and maintenance, $10.3 billion for research and development, and $2.2 billion for procurement ahead of a formal appropriations bill. Without the ability to spend money from its own separate accounts, the Space Force has to pull money from Air Force appropriations.

Dipping into USAF money risks “weapon system readiness and delivery schedules, partnership opportunities with industry and other governmental entities, and defense industrial base sustainability,” Bailey said.

“This administrative burden would adversely impact Space Force’s
mission execution as staff would devote more time to duplicative administrative work,” according to a document outlining fiscal 2021 funding concerns.

In the Air Force, a yearlong CR would delay purchase of the first eight Boeing MH-139 helicopters that will patrol nuclear missile fields and ferry VIPs around metropolitan Washington in case of emergency.

Production of nearly 200 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles and 10 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles would be pushed back at Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. The Air Force’s weapons enterprise is anticipating issues as multiple new designs move through development and testing, particularly in the hypersonics portfolio.

“If it’s a shorter month or two, we probably have enough margin to cover,” Weapons Program Executive Officer Brig. Gen. Heath Collins told Air Force Magazine on Sept. 22. “If we get into a very extended CR period, that will have some pretty significant impacts to a number of our programs.”

Facilities for the F-35 and F-16 fighter jets, T-7 trainer jet, and Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent nuclear missiles would be delayed under a one-year CR, and work would stop on a dormitory for Basic Military Training recruits at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas.

A continuing resolution similarly threatens the sweeping reforms Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. is pushing. He wants to ditch aircraft and software that won’t survive in future fights, and invest in a smarter, faster way of waging war. Brown indicated a CR gives the Air Force another opportunity to state its case for why it needs money now.

“That’s something that doesn’t help us accelerate change, or be able to do things a bit faster with some predictability,” Brown said of a CR on Sept. 16. “It will cause us to take a step back and then have to take a relook, realizing that no matter who gets elected in November, we will actually continue to work through this.”

“I wanted to do less talking [to Congress] and more action,” he added.