The Air Force says the continuing resolution that’s becoming increasingly likely for the fiscal 2016 budget would halt progress on dozens of acquisition programs and would probably force it to cancel plans to build its military workforce in certain key areas.
With just a little over a month to go before the start of 2016, it’s appearing less and less likely that Congress will agree on a new budget before the year begins, let alone one that President Barack Obama would be willing to sign.
Most federal budget observers believe it’s almost certain that Defense Department and the rest of the government will be operating under a continuing resolution for at least part of 2016, meaning agencies will get the same amount of money they received in 2015 and the authorizations for the same programs they’re building this year — not any new ones.
“We estimate there might be as many as 50 programs — many of them smaller programs — but nonetheless 50 programs that would fall under the category of a new start which could not be done under a continuing resolution, especially if it lasted an entire year,” said Deborah Lee James, the secretary of the Air Force. “The other important point is that a full-year CR would provide even less money than the sequestration-level budget. We need to get the full-up appropriation and the full-up authorization passed at roughly the President’s budget level.”
The Defense sequestration caps for 2016 are set in current law at $499 billion for the overall Pentagon budget — modestly higher than the $496 billion dollar cap set for 2015. But within the Air Force’s share of the budget, a continuing resolution would mean less money in 2016 than in 2015.
The reduction would come at a time when the service is trying to increase its overall end strength from 483,000 to 492,000 airmen after having concluded it has taken far too many cuts in the personnel portion of its budget over the past decade and after it’s promised to hold the line on further cutbacks.
“Under a full-year CR, I believe we would not be able to increase our end strength and we would be stuck in many, many ways,” James said. “Whatever happens, we’re stressing the importance of not taking this out of our people. But we’d be significantly down in terms of our dollars. Everything would have to be looked at. I would argue against end-strength reductions, but we certainly wouldn’t get the increases we need.”
Among the areas in which the Air Force believes it needs more people are operators of unmanned aircraft, a cadre that’s undermanned and overworked, service officials say. The Air Force already has asked Congress for more funding to bolster its full-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) workforce along with a short-term proposal that would let some of those missions be partially-filled by contract personnel.
But those contractors would not be allowed to perform functions such as targeting enemy forces or firing upon them, said Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff.
“We have used contractors in the intelligence business and in the ISR business for a long time,” Welsh said. “This is not a new concept and what we’re doing doesn’t require new approvals. What we’re talking about doing is expanding the use of contractors to actually operate government-owned systems for the near term until we can get our training pipeline mature enough that it can sustain the load over time.”
Welsh said the effects of a continuing resolution would implicate not only new acquisition programs but also incremental additions to weapons system portfolios the Air Force already owns.
“We do have quantity increases scheduled in 2016 and aircraft procurements, like the KC-46, the F-35, the C-130 multi-year program and a few other things. Those would go away under a year-long CR,” he said.
And over the longer-term, he said the Air Force needs some sense of budget stability and the freedom to retire platforms it feels are no longer affordable because of a combination of budget constraints and the investments it’s trying to make in new technologies that could deal with 21st century enemies, including a forthcoming long-range bomber to replace the B-52 and B-2 aircraft.
Part of that argument rings back to case the service has been making to Congress about manpower requirements: For example, Air Force officials say they cannot afford enough aircraft maintainers to service the forthcoming F-35 — scheduled to reach its initial operating capability next year and full operating capability in 2021 — if its limited pool of maintenance and logistics personnel also are assigned to keep a complement of A-10 jets in the current inventory.
Welsh, a former A-10 pilot, characterized the plane as mostly suitable for “low-threat” environments such as the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while also saying his service already has too few planes in its inventory to meet global combatant commanders’ demands.
“We’re at the point today where we have trouble having enough functioning aircraft to keep our air crews trained. This is not a new problem. We have four fleets of airplanes that are over 50 years old,” he said. “The idea that we would run a Formula One or NASCAR race with a car built in 1962 is ridiculous, but we’re going to war with airplanes built in 1962. We have got to modernize the Air Force. It’s just an imperative.”