The Air Force’s top civilian and military leaders told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 3, 2020, that an “aggressive package of strategic trades” is necessary to successfully reshape the service to confront emerging threats from “peer competitors” such as China and Russia.
“This fiscal year ‘21 budget request sets the course for the Air Force we need to accomplish these aims,” Barrett told the committee. “Specifically, the United States Air Force invests in a future force that allows us to connect the joint force, dominate space, generate combat power and conduct logistics under attack.”
The hearing featured Goldfein and Department of the Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett and focused on the department’s recently released $169 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2021.
“This budget, building on the last three, offers the most aggressive package of strategic trades we have made as a service in over two decades to achieve complete alignment with the National Defense Strategy and secures our nation’s military superiority over the next decade,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein told the committee.
But the budget, while modernizing the force and the two legs of the nuclear triad among other upgrades, also calls for retiring a collection of older planes to free up funding for critical new equipment. The list includes 13 KC-135 Stratotankers and 16 KC-10 Extenders; 24 C-130H Hercules, 17 B-1 Lancers and 24 RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 20/30 aircraft, among others.
That decision, both Goldfein and Barrett said, reflected the hard, but necessary, choices.
In broad terms, Barrett told the committee that the Air Force’s plans and practices are rooted in four overarching concepts.
The first is “connect the joint force,” which is short-hand for an ambitious effort to collect, analyze and transmit vast amounts of data from air, land, sea, space and cyber to all services and commanders in a way that overwhelms adversaries. The effort, known as Joint All Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, is designed to “more seamlessly integrate as a joint team” in a battle network that links all sensors to all shooters.
The second priority is to “dominate space,” which essentially means ensure the successful launch and sustainment of the newly created Space Force. “The Department of the Air Force supports a lean and agile Space Force that ensures superiority in space, provides deterrence and, if deterrence fails, combat power.”
The third element is ensuring the ability to “generate combat power” with an emphasis on modernizing the aging land and airborne legs of the nuclear arsenal; continuing to increase the number of squadrons to 386; continuing to improve readiness and working to bring new weapons systems such as the B-21 long range strike bomber into reality on schedule and on budget.
“This budget moves us forward to recapitalize our two legs of the triad and the critical nuclear command and control that ties it all together,” Goldfein said, adding in response to a question from Reed, that the goal is add 72 fighter aircraft a year to add capability while driving down the fleet’s average age.
Finally, the Air Force budget and policy decision are aimed at ensuring a more nimble, “expeditionary” force that is able to “conduct logistics under attack to sustain high-tempo operations as long as needed.”
While the hearing was largely cordial and straightforward, senators indicated unease with some of the choices in the budget, especially those to retire aircraft.
“We are concerned that your current budget is inadequate to allow you to reach the requirement of 386 squadrons,” committee Chairman Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said in his opening statement. Inhofe’s statement was read by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., because Inhofe was unable to attend.
“There’s a concern that this year’s budget takes a risk on divesting aircraft we need today in the hope of buying modern capability in the future,” Inhofe’s statement said.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, raised a similar concern asking for more detail on the tradeoffs and the real-world impact of the resulting balance of forces.
“In preparing this budget request, the Air Force faced difficult decisions in regard to modernizing and keeping the technological advantage over near peer competitors and the need to support ongoing operations,” he said.
Like other Democrats on the panel, Reed also asked how the Air Force will “mitigate” funds intended for “modernization efforts” that were diverted to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
Other questions focused on the problems facing the KC-46 tanker, how the pollutant known as PFAS will be cleaned up at Air Force installations and acquisition practices for the Space Force, basing of F-35s, and the progress of a novel battle network known as the Advanced Battle Management System.
Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz, a retired Air Force colonel and A-10 pilot pressed both Goldfein and Barrett on the Air Force analysis for retiring A-10s. “It’s premature to plan to retire even one A-10 let alone 44. What is your plan going forward?” she asked.
Goldfein acknowledged that some planes will be retired but that “nearly $1 billion” is allocated in the budget to upgrade remaining A-10s.
“I’ll tell you straight up, you saved the A-10. Nobody else can make that claim,” Goldfein told McSally. “We are putting nearly $1 billion to upgrades … The investment we’re making is a good investment. We have to look at the cost of retaining the entire fleet.”
Questions from lawmakers ranged from classification standards, threats from Russia and China, the plan and schedule for resolving problems connected with the new KC-46 tanker, and more parochial questions about local bases and the schedule for replacing propeller blades on MC-130H. The March 3 hearing was the first step in a lengthy process that will yield legislation providing a blueprint written by Congress of the spending, security and policy priorities for the entire United States military.