Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein warned Nov. 6 that budget uncertainties could affect dozens of programs ranging from F-35 Lighting II upgrades to those addressing the pilot shortage, while also complicating longer-range efforts to reshape the force to meet future threats.
“It’s truly damaging for all the services and certainly the United States Air Force,” Goldfein told an audience of industry officials, congressional staffers, media and others during the event on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Air Force Association.
Funding for the entire U.S. government expires Nov. 22 at 12:01 a.m. unless Congress acts. While progress on forging a budget agreement has been slow, congressional aides say there is movement toward approving a short-term spending plan that keeps the government running into December.
That short-term budget, called a continuing resolution, or CR, would provide time for Congress to complete work on a traditional budget for the fiscal year and adjust spending to address new priorities and needs. If that outcome is not possible, Congress is expected to adopt another CR that would likely stretch for either six months or through Sept. 30, 2020, when the fiscal year ends.
Using CRs is not optimal, Goldfein said, since any of those would likely continue funding levels from the previous year without updating the spending plan to account for new priorities, realities and needs.
According to an Air Force budget assessment provided by Goldfein, a six-month CR would postpone development and production of the F-15EX, prevent the Air Force from purchasing tail kits for 1,000 Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs, 99 AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and delay upgrades to the wings of the F-35 that would improve readiness for 31% of the fleet.
If the CR extends for the year, it would also interrupt funding to help Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, and Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, recover from natural disasters.
It also could trim $123 million from undergraduate flight training that could affect efforts to rectify the Air Force pilot shortage, among other impacts.
Goldfein said budget turbulence would ripple beyond the Air Force itself. Industry partners would feel the consequences as well.
Without predictable funding, he said, “I have to go to a CEO … and say, ‘I don’t know exactly how many weapons I’m going to buy from you this year. … So I want you to keep this very sophisticated workforce with a high-level security clearance occupied because eventually I may get the money.’
“Then we finally get the money,” Goldfein continued. “I go back to them and say, ‘let’s pull the trigger; let’s go.’ He says, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve already had to repurpose that workforce. I can surge now, but it will cost you this amount.’”
Longer-term planning must account for spending uncertainties as well, he said. The top priority is transforming the Air Force to a digital, highly networked force that links “sensors with shooters” assisted by artificial intelligence, machine learning and seamless interoperability with air, land, sea, cyber and space systems.
The challenge, he said, is making progress on this effort while funding is present to ensure the Air Force can confront and, if necessary, defeat Russia and China. Air Force budget analysts say that window could close in two years or less.
“We believe (fiscal year) 2021 is potentially the last good year, and our focus is on setting the foundation for the Air Force we know we need with the technology and people we need to win when the nation calls upon us to do it,” he said.
One major element of meeting that goal demands an increase to 386 operational squadrons, he said, a figure derived from rigorous analysis and sophisticated war games.
“That was not a gold-plated figure,” Goldfein said. “Think about it; when we kicked Iraq out of Kuwait, a non-nuclear middleweight power, we had 412 operational squadrons. We’re saying we need 386 squadrons to defeat a nuclear peer. It’s not a gold-plated number. So we’re not going to back off what we require capacity-wise.”