Get started on your Homeland Security Degree at American Military University.
When the U.S. armed forces revealed their proposed fiscal 2021 budgets on Monday at the Pentagon, it became clear that the Department of the Air Force has a problem the other military departments do not. Much of what it wants to do with $63 billion sought for new weapons and warfighting technology is secret.
That applies doubly to the newly-minted Space Force, which operates within the Department of the Air Force. There are literally hundreds of line items in the proposed budget that are classified, with the largest share consisting of recently begun efforts to provide increased awareness, protection and connectivity in space.
The secrecy doesn’t just obscure the status of “black” programs like the next-generation B-21 bomber. In some cases, the budget doesn’t even acknowledge that key programs exist. Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein has been briefing select members of Congress on how the Air Forces proposes to modernize for future great power conflict, but those briefings are generally “special access,” meaning secret, too.
Secrecy is not generally a problem in terms of program execution. Classified programs sometimes unfold more smoothly because they are subject to less oversight or outside criticism. The problem is how to explain to lawmakers why you want to retire a cherished legacy system when you can’t disclose what is taking its place.
Consider, for example, the challenge of replacing aging radar planes and surveillance drones that may no longer be survivable in future conflicts. A raft of those are earmarked for replacement in the proposed budget, including most of the fleet of Global Hawk unmanned aircraft. But the budget says barely anything about the various overhead assets that will replace Global Hawk and other outdated recon assets.
If the old stuff doesn’t get retired expeditiously, it will be harder to find funding for the new stuff in a flat-to-declining budget environment. But virtually every legacy program that the budget designates as a bill-payer for the future has a political constituency in Congress, and the service’s inability to explain what comes next can be used as a pretext for resisting retirement of systems that lack the resilience, agility or functionality to prevail in wars with other great powers.
The foundation of the new budget is a national defense strategy completed by the Pentagon in 2018. That too is mostly secret, but the strategy is known to warn against the reemergence of strategic competition with Russia and China, the waning of America’s military edge, and the emergence of new technology that might transform the nature of conflict.
Within the framework provided by that strategy, the Air Force has identified four overarching priorities that it must pursue in its modernization plan: seamlessly connecting the force, dominating in space, generating combat power sufficient to precisely destroy thousands of aimpoints quickly, and fielding logistic networks suitable for sustaining high-tempo operations under fire.
None of these things were hard when the main enemy was terrorism, but when the threat originates from a near-peer adversary like China, they all become very demanding. For instance, Beijing is pursuing numerous ways of negating U.S. space assets, which are crucial to the joint force’s combat effectiveness. Without GPS, secure communications and other services provided by satellites, U.S. war plans could come unraveled quickly in a future conflict.
So of course the Air Force needs to find ways of protecting and enhancing space capabilities, just as it needs to strengthen the sinews of global air power. But it wants to keep potential enemies guessing for as long as possible what they will be up against, hence the need for secrecy. Unfortunately, the need for secrecy isn’t much of a selling point on Capitol Hill.
One indication of the technological ferment hidden within the Air Force’s proposed budget is that it requests more money for research, development and testing of new warfighting technology than it does for the serial production of combat systems. R&D gets $37.3 billion, while procurement gets $25.4 billion. Within those totals, the Space Force receives $10.3 billion for R&D and a mere $2.4 billion for procurement, reflecting the extensive and largely classified development of new orbital technology.
Although the Space Force is now technically separate from the Air Force, many of the secret initiatives the two forces are pursuing bridge their respective warfighting domains. A case in point is the Advanced Battle Management System that will enhance connectivity of the nation’s air fleet. Space-based systems are essential to fielding a resilient and responsive global battle management network, even though the services are loathe to explain precisely why in public forums.
As if all the secrecy were not enough of a problem in dealing with Congress, the Air Force must cope with the additional challenge that some of its most important modernization initiatives will take decades to refine and field. Sustaining these long-term efforts across multiple presidencies and changes in the makeup of Congress every two years will be difficult, especially given the continuous advance of relevant technologies. Interested parties will always be waiting in the wings during budget deliberations to offer a “better” solution to the Air Force’s needs than what the service has decided it requires.
Obviously, the Army, Navy and Marine Corps have secret programs too. If you doubt that, try to find out anything substantive about where the Navy’s submarines or the Army’s special operators are deployed on a given day. However, the scale of the secrecy challenge is much greater in the Department of the Air Force, because it operates on the cutting edge of modern technology. Hopefully, the political system will grasp that keeping Beijing and Moscow guessing is a more effective approach to deterring aggression than going the full-disclosure route.
Learn From The Leader
American Military University (AMU) is proud to be the #1 provider of higher education to the U.S. military, based on FY 2018 DoD tuition assistance data, as reported by Military Times, 2019. At AMU, you’ll find instructors who are former leaders in the military, national security, and the public sector who bring their field-tested skills and strategies into the online classroom. And we work to keep our curriculum and content relevant to help you stay ahead of industry trends. Join the 64,000 U.S. military men and women earning degrees at American Military University.