Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said this week he and the joint chiefs are cautiously approaching their task of building a supplemental defense budget for fiscal year 2017 as well as an FY-18 budget as uncertainty looms over long-term program funding.
“I don’t want to find myself in a position where I’ve made wildly optimistic predictions, and then made a decision with a strategy of hope that then results in a bunch of broken programs later,” Goldfein told reporters at a Feb. 7 Defense Writers Group breakfast. “I think all the service chiefs right now are somewhat cautious in terms of where we are right now because while there may be some expectations [of a higher topline] being set, what we really need is a really accurate predictive model that we can make decisions against.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in a Jan. 31 memo directed the department to pull together an FY-17 supplemental defense budget request, a revised FY-18 budget and a future years defense plan for FY-19 to FY-23. The supplemental is due to the Office of Management and Budget by March 1; FY-18 budget work should be sent to OMB by May 1.
Those budget documents are to be crafted with the aim of boosting warfighter readiness, addressing program shortfalls and building a larger, more lethal joint force — particularly driven by a desire to speed up the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Goldfein noted that in addition to budget asks, the possibility of accelerating the battle with ISIL also depends on the tempo of coalition and government-wide efforts, to avoid getting out of sync with the work of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development.
He said the Air Force hasn’t yet received FY-18 topline numbers but has already sent the Defense Department the service’s vision of what the Air Force can do that year with the resources it has been given. The Associated Press reported Feb. 7 the service’s FY-17 supplemental plan spans $6.2 billion in unfunded priorities, including funds for five more F-35A aircraft and $225 million to maintain 322,000 active-duty airmen, as part of a $30 billion request across the services.
That list is a modified version of the original unfunded priorities list, which Inside the Air Force reported last month asked for a $691 million plus-up for five F-35s; $724 million for the C-130H recapitalization effort; $88 million for F-16 “compliance and survivability upgrades”; and $2.3 billion for “future capabilities” to update legacy fleets to meet combatant commanders’ needs.
The Air Force had also requested $145 million to bring the force up to 321,000 airmen; $1.5 billion to improve training and test ranges “and other activities which directly enhance preparedness for day-to-day combat operations”; $1.2 billion in facilities sustainment, restoration and modernization funding as well as $481 million for installation support, ITAF reported.
An Air Force spokeswoman declined to elaborate on what program funding may be pushed off in waiting for a more stable budget environment. The unfunded priorities list, the FY-17 supplemental ask and the FY-18 president’s budget are still pre-decisional.
“Our budget amendment submission is consistent with our FY-17 Unfunded Priorities List and has been updated to address the most immediate warfighting readiness shortfalls that we can execute in FY-17,” Ann Stefanek wrote in a Feb. 7 email. “People remain our number one readiness issue, and that is why we are requesting additional funding that will help us grow our active-duty force. Our budget amendment also addresses requirements that keep us ready today and postures us for tomorrow.”
The chief’s wish list is topped by a need to receive a budget that lasts longer than one year, after several years of planning under continuing resolutions and short-term funding. The Air Force needs “connective tissue” between each fiscal year and from FY-19 onward, Goldfein continued, “because one of the worst situations we could be in would be to have great expectations of large infusions of dollars that result in decisions that we make that then don’t pan out.”
“When I jerk the throttle around in one-year budgets and I tell [industry], ‘Hey, I think I need this much two to three years from now, but I’m not sure because I’m probably going to get a continuing resolution, which means I can’t spend until the last half of the year or when it ends,’ that CEO has got to somehow figure how to sustain this sophisticated workforce,” Goldfein added. “The continuation of one-year budgets wreaks havoc on a service chief’s ability to plan and it also wreaks havoc on industry.”
Goldfein told reporters the service will look at the A-10 program and the future of close-air support as part of current budget discussions. The Air Force is “fully committed to close-air support,” he said, adding that the service plans to keep the A-10 in service until 2021. Discussions coming soon between the Air Force and Mattis will determine the way forward after 2021, barring any unforeseen changes.
Goldfein also said his recommendation to Mattis, if he receives modernization funds through the supplemental request, would be to prioritize the F-35 with the knowledge that many other areas also need attention.
“The more F-35s that we can actually procure in the shortest amount of time to be able to reduce the aircraft age and be able to get more heavily into the fifth-generation business is clearly a priority,” he said. “Is it the No. 1 place I would spend dollars? That’s going to be a department-level discussion that I’ll have with the secretary of defense.” — Rachel S. Karas