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PENTAGON: The Air Force’s increased investment in space and future force capabilities is coming at the cost of retiring a number of legacy aircraft, a move likely to elicit sharp congressional opposition.
This includes retiring 16 KC-10 and 13 KC-35 aircraft in order to focus on the bringing on the modernized KC-46 tanker. In addition, he said, 17 of the “least capable” B-1 bombers and 24 C-130Hs are being retired this year. Finally, while the budget is supporting investment to modernize the venerable A-10 Warthog, the service continues to retire older aircraft.
The service had to make some tough decisions to support its 2021 commitment to building future capabilities due to a 2021 top line that is “essentially flat,” Maj. Gen. John Pletcher, Air Force deputy assistant secretary for budget, told reporters this afternoon.
In yet another example of budget tradeoffs, first reported by colleague Valerie Insinna, the service cancelled Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW) program, but is continuing with the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) — both under development by Lockheed Martin. The choice was due to the fact that ARRW is unique to the Air Force, whereas the HCSW is similar to hypersonic weapons being developed by the Army and the Navy.
“The Air Force has many more mission demands than resources to accomplish them. The current budget proposal indicates that they are being forced to retire current force structure to invest in the future,” says Dave Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute, says. “The kinds of capabilities that are required to meet the challenges of peer threats reside primarily in the Department of the Air Force—Joint All-Domain Command & Control will be absolutely vital in determining the winner of the next major conflict, and so will space. Both these areas require an infusion of greater resources.”
Deptula cautioned that the US military also needs advanced aircraft “that can project power without projecting the same degree of vulnerability as surface forces.” Therefore, he said, “we all need to keep our eye on the ball of whether or not the Air Force is getting closer to, or further away from, its goal of 386 operational squadrons—and the risk of falling away from this objective force level that reflects what is needed to meet the demands of the defense strategy.”
The Space Force is slated to get $15.3 billion, including a small pot of funds found in the controversial Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget: of which $10.3 billion is research, development, test and evaluation (RTD&E) money and $2.4 billion is procurement. Most of this funding was simply transferred from Air Force space programs, although it does represent a $900 million increase in space funding over 2020, Pletcher stressed.
The new service, stood up on Dec. 20, will staff up to a total personnel strength of 9,979, including 6,434 military. As Breaking D readers are aware, in the near term the Space Force will be staffed solely by Air Force personnel, some 16,000 airmen in total, due to restrictions placed in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. (So, it is a wee bit bizarre to see a footnote to the personnel charts in the Army’s budget documents that show 100 soldiers will be moved to Space Force. Army public affairs couldn’t be reached at press time to explain.)
Pletcher noted that the Air Force operations and maintenance budget also includes funds for what the service now is calling “blue for space” efforts, such as support functions at Space Force headquarters.
Air Force budget documents, released today, show “dominate space” as one of four requirements “for a more lethal force,” along with “connect the Joint Force; generate combat power, and conduct logistics under attack.”
“Winning the future fight will require us to dominate space,” Pletcher told reporters.
And, as Steve Kitay, DoD deputy assistant secretary for space policy, made clear Feb. 6 at a Mitchell Institute event, the future Space Force arsenal will include offensive, as well as defensive, weapons. Indeed, the Air Force documents show OCO money slated for “counter space operations” by the Space Force — a first, notes Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Harrison also pointed out that the 2021 Space Force budget shows $3.6 billion in classified funds, a number that for the first time reveals how much of the Air Force classified budget goes to classified space programs. These monies are different, however, from “black” budget passed through to the National Reconnaissance Office and other Intelligence Community programs, he explained.
The service also is touting its efforts to support development of Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2), as well as its plan to accelerate the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) tech demonstration efforts. A total of $302 million is slated for ABMS, more than double the $144 million Congress granted in 2020 (a figure slightly smaller than the service’s 2020 request of $186 million.)
“Modern warfare is increasingly all domain,” said Pletcher. “The foundation is the ability to network all forces into a connected force.”
Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next-Gen OPIR) is the big winner in the Air Force’s R&D budget of $37.3 billion; it’s budgeted at $2.3 billion. Congress granted the program $1.47 billion in 2020. As Breaking D readers know, Next-Gen OPIR is the replacement for the current Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite constellation. Funding for launch of the final two SBIRS is included in the 2021 procurement budget, Pletcher said.
The Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), being developed to replace the elderly Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) fleet, nearly doubles to $1.53 billion from $557 million in R&D funding. The budget provides $474 million for development of the Long Range Standoff (LRSO) weapon, down from $713 million in 2020.
Funding for the B-21 takes a small hit, with $2.8 billion in R&D funding slated, vice nearly $3 billion in 2020.
Overall, the R&D budget increased from last year’s $35.2 billion to $37.3 billion. Air Force procurement writ large, however, dipped — with the Air Force, like all five services, shifting its focus from legacy programs to new and modernized systems.
However, the procurement budget includes an increase for GPS III, some $628 million for two new satellites.
Major aircraft procurements include 48 F-35As, the same number requested in 2020 although Congress moved to boost that number to 62 — with a budget of $5.794 billion. There also is another $793 million in F-35A Capability Development & Delivery in the R&D budget.
Some $1.4 billion is slated for 12 F-15EX. DoD requested eight last year; Congress funded six. However, Harrison points out, last year the Air Force planned to buy 18 F-15EX fighters in 2021.
The service also will buy 15 KC-46As, despite Boeing’s various technical and production problems.
Breaking with the overall uptick in space funding, the service is only budgeting for three National Security Space Launch vehicles, down from four in 2020, with a price tag of $1 billion.
Procurement of Boeing’s MH-139 Grey Wolf is included for the first time: eight aircraft with a budget of $212 million.
The Air Force undertook a “zero-based review” of all programs to redirect resources and realigned $4.1 billion over the five-year defense plan via reforming business practices. (Breaking D readers may remember that Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has said that the service identified a total some $30 billion in cuts to fund its top priorities including space and multi-domain operations in the 2021 budget.)
According to the Air Force’s budget documents, the 2021 top line of $207.2 billion — including $38.2 billion for “non-blue” budgetary lines the service does not control such as NRO’s budget and Special Forces programs — is exactly the same as the budget enacted by Congress for 2020. That said, the amount for “blue” Air Force-only programs and personnel increases a tad: rising from $168.1 billion to $169 billion.
Confusingly, the budget documents released by the DoD Comptroller paints a different picture: showing the Air Force as the only service to get an increase in 2021. The Defense Budget Overview book shows the 2021 request of $207.2 billion as nearly $1.8 billion more than the $205.4 billion enacted in 2020. Air Force officials were at a loss to explain the discrepancy, although they noted that DoD often uses different methodologies when reporting on annual budgets.