New Starts Crippled Under CR

Several F-16 Fighting Falcon?s from the 388th Fighter Wing sit on the flightline Sept. 9, 2013, at Hill AFB, Utah. For more than three months, sequestration created many challenges for the fighter wing. Most notably, one F-16 squadron completely stood down for the entire sequester, its sister-squadron flying drastically reduced hours. Air Force officials told Congress on March 29, 2017, continued budget uncertainty could force units to stop flying once again. Air Force photo by Desiree N. Palacios.

Congress has helped mitigate serious damage to the Air Force’s top-priority programs, but dozens of projects would be severely hampered if Congress continues to substitute continuing resolutions for approved long-term spending plans, top service officers told the Senate Armed Services Committee’s airland panel Wednesday.

In a hearing on USAF modernization—but which was dominated by discussion of the pilot shortage, endstrength, and readiness—Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, top uniformed acquisition official, said “60 Air Force new starts across the spectrum” of missions would be “devastated” by continued management by CR.

He thanked Congress for allowing “anomalies”—which are special waivers to prevent contract defaults—for the B-21 bomber, KC-46 tanker, F-35, and a few others, but said other priority programs, such as recapitalization of the Compass Call aircraft, and especially munitions efforts, would be severely affected by the lack of an approved defense bill.

“Longer term, we are determining which areas we can take risk in” to deal with the funding shortfall caused by the CR, he said, but the continuing resolution will “leave us with a $2.2 billion shortfall in two months.”

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), ranking member of the panel, asked why the Air Force will be in such dire straits if the funding levels are simply the same as last year. Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, deputy chief of staff for plans, programs, and requirements, explained that the Air Force, as directed, increased training and flying hours “trying to regain readiness,” particularly in high-threat scenarios, and a CR would effectively put the service in a two month flying deficit because of the hours already flown.

“We are ahead of last year’s curve,” of flying hours, he explained. While forward-deployed combat units will continue to get priority, units at home station will virtually stop flying, in a repeat of the 2013 sequester fiasco.

Bunch explained that the demand for precision weapons in the fight against ISIS has depleted stockpiles, and in order to both restore them, build up a bit “for the future,” and “take care of our allies” who also use the weapons, a surge increase is needed. However, funding the weapons through the overseas contingency operations account takes “years” longer than through base budget accounts, and it doesn’t give contractors the reassurance that they can safely invest in increasing capacity, Bunch said.

“The problem is predictability,” Bunch said, because spending on munitions has been “throttle up, throttle down, throttle up” with no reliable pattern.

Subcommittee chair Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said the panel would do everything it could to help, but a CR “may be the best we can expect” for some time to come.