Delivering a unified and unambiguous message, the Department of the Air Force’s highest-ranking civilian and military leaders told Congress March 28 that progress is being made modernizing the Air and Space Forces but to fully succeed, Congress must pass the budget on time so critical “transformation” is not delayed.
To properly modernize and transform both the Air Force and Space Force to meet real-world threats, “the Department of the Air Force needs timely authorizations and appropriations,” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall told the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
“The (Department of the Air Force) is ready to move forward with the next generation of capabilities we need and there is no time to lose,” he told lawmakers on a key subcommittee responsible for crafting and helping to pass into law the annual spending bill providing funds to the Air Force and Space Force.
Kendall’s request was echoed by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., and Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman. All three took part in a hearing before the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.
The hearing was the first major step in a lengthy, annual process that yields a new spending plan for the department. As designed, the process is expected to finish by Oct. 1 when the new fiscal year begins. But because of complexities in policy and political disagreements that deadline has often been missed in recent years, forcing Congress to enact temporary, short-term budgets known as “continuing resolutions” or CRs. A CR maintains spending at levels from the previous year’s budget but it also prohibits spending on new or substantially revised programs and projects.
That restriction is troublesome, Kendall, Brown and Saltzman told lawmakers because the department’s budget request contains nearly two dozen new programs designed specifically to add equipment and capabilities necessary to address challenges posed by strategic competitors like China and Russia.
“An on-time budget will continue the change required to address both todays and tomorrow’s national security threats,” Brown told lawmakers. “We must fulfill our sacred duty of providing our Airmen with the tools they need to be successful.”
Later in the hearing, in response to a question, Kendall warned lawmakers of the consequences if the budget is not enacted on time and ready by the start of the fiscal year. “I can’t overstate how devastating it would be,” he said.
“We have got to stay ahead of the threat; our deterrent capability depends on that and our ability to prevail depends on that. It would be utterly devastating to the department; it would have a lot of negative impacts across the board,” Kendall said.
Brown, in responding to the same question, said, “It would be a step backwards … That’s not the place we need to be with our pacing challenge. Our goal is to stay ahead of the pacing challenge, not chase the pacing challenge.”
Saltzman, in his opening remarks, made a similar point.
“This budget request is designed to deliver the forces, personnel, and partnerships the Space Force requires to preserve U.S. advantages in space,” Saltzman told the subcommittee, referring to the Space Force’s $30 billion budget request. ” … But only if the Congress passes timely appropriations.”
The department’s $215.1 billion budget request, Kendall told the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, includes “approximately 20 completely new or significantly rescoped program elements … that we must develop, produce and field, if we desire to maintain the air and space superiority that America and our allies have counted on for decades.”
The budget proposal submitted to Congress March 13 includes $185.1 billion for the Air Force and $30 billion for the Space Force. If enacted into law as proposed, the department’s overall budget would grow by $9.3 billion beyond last year’s enacted budget.
As he has frequently emphasized, Kendall told lawmakers again that the budget proposal was designed to ensure the Air and Space Forces remain formidable, that they allow the services to evolve to ensure that deterrence is maintained and, specifically, to transform the Air and Space Forces so they can meet the primary security challenge – “China, China, China.”
He mentioned that the budget is the result of “difficult choices,” but that it advances the most critical programs and goals.
“For the strategic triad, we have fully funded the Sentinel ICBM, the B-21 Raider bomber, and our nuclear command and control programs. For the conventional force, we are increasing production of both the F-35 and the F-15EX,” he said.
He noted that the budget includes funding for the Next Generation Air Dominance Program and for further developing uncrewed Collaborative Combat Aircraft. He also mentioned a focus on “continuing the acquisition of sensor programs like the E-7 and the new resilient Missile Warning and Tracking space system.” The proposal includes funding for a 5.2% raise for Airmen and Guardians, the highest in history, as well as additional funding to improve dormitories and other facilities important for quality of life.
All of these “choices” he told lawmakers, move the Air Force and Space Force “into the future.”
Getting there requires tradeoffs, including “divestment of the over 40-year-old A-10 Warthog. This program has served us well but it is absorbing resources needed for higher priorities,” Kendall said.
As in previous years, lawmakers asked several questions in response to plans to retire aircraft. They also asked questions, as in the past, about basing decisions; pilot retention and the Air Force’s response to pilot shortages; upgrading engines for the F-35; the status of air refueling, development of the B-21 long-range bomber and hypersonic weapons, among others.