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Appropriators puzzled by Air Force cuts to ‘critical’ programs

Lawmakers want the service to explain why it now wants fewer aircraft it recently viewed as essential

Lawmakers are pushing Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall for answers as to why the service doesn't want many aircraft it recently claimed were vitally important.
Lawmakers are pushing Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall for answers as to why the service doesn't want many aircraft it recently claimed were vitally important. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Lawmakers who oversee the defense budget are demanding answers from the Air Force about proposals to stop building virtually brand-new aircraft and other systems that the service’s leaders previously touted as vital.

“While trade-offs occur to support force readiness and modernization, truncating programs that only recently transitioned into production and were hailed as supporting critical Air Force missions, such as personnel recovery and future tactical air, calls into question the strategic underpinning of these and other acquisition decisions,” appropriators noted in the report accompanying the latest federal spending law, which was enacted a week ago.

The appropriators’ piercing critique of the basis of Air Force budgeting has received little attention. Their report suggests the Air Force has more work to do in justifying its plans to Congress — perhaps especially when it comes to curtailing major programs built by influential contractors.

The Air Force’s latest Future Years Defense Program, which outlines spending projections for fiscal years 2023 through 2027, supports buying 44 percent fewer F-15EX Eagle II fighter jets than previously planned: 80 instead of 144, appropriators wrote. The planes are built by Boeing in St. Louis.

Moreover, the Air Force now wants to buy 34 percent fewer Combat Rescue Helicopters known as HH-60W Jolly Green IIs, 75 instead of 113, the report indicated. The Jolly Green II, made by Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky in Connecticut, is an updated version of the Black Hawk. The name harks back to the Jolly Green and Super Jolly Green helicopters of the Vietnam era.

The new spending report also expresses concern about Air Force plans to reduce spending on the Space Force over the next five years, even as military leaders promote the need to protect satellites from attack, defend against hypersonic missiles and enhance other space-based capabilities. 

New, modern systems

The Air Force programs proposed for reduced buys are relatively new and have been previously marketed as important for national security. 

The F-15EX fighter jet initiative, for one, only began procurement less than two years ago. The Air Force brass has advertised the warplane as a cost-effective replacement for F-16 fighter jets at Air National Guard units across America, a project whose future is now in doubt, the appropriators warned.  

Similarly, the first flight of a Jolly Green II helicopter occurred only in 2019, and the aircraft have been sold as more capable replacements for 1980s-era Pave Hawk helicopters in retrieving downed pilots, evacuating people and conducting other missions. 

The Air Force now wants to halt procurements of both aircraft in the next couple of years, even though they are “in the relatively early stages of production and provide modern capabilities,” the appropriators said.

In their report, they called on the Air Force secretary to send the defense committees a list of all the aircraft programs that the service plans to truncate, plus descriptions of each decision’s impacts on operations, strategic basing, cost avoidance by fiscal year, quantity change and “the rationale for truncation.” The assessment is supposed to be delivered at the same time as the fiscal 2024 budget request, the report said.

Search and rescue

On the Jolly Green IIs, the Air Force proposed last March ending procurement of the helicopters after one last, scaled-back buy.

Whereas the service had previously planned to buy 20 of the helicopters in fiscal 2023, it sought half that number in the fiscal 2023 request — and asked Congress to end the program there. 

But the final spending bill added $570 million to the Air Force budget to bring the number of rescue helicopters procured back up to 20, for a total of more than $1.2 billion allocated for the program in fiscal 2023.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall had told reporters in March that the need for the helicopters has been called into question because future conflicts will feature more contested airspaces than were found in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon is also studying ways to extract downed airmen by sending in quiet drones. 

“The scenarios that we’re most worried about are not the same as they once were,” Kendall said.

National Guard jets

As for the F-15EX budget in the fiscal 2023 spending act, the Air Force will net just over $2.3 billion to buy two dozen of the jets. 

That is double the dozen aircraft bankrolled by the fiscal 2022 spending law. But it represents the beginning of the end for the program, if the Air Force gets its way. 

Kendall has explained the ramped-up buy for a dwindling program by arguing that it makes more economic sense to buy more F-15EXs sooner to replace aging F-16Cs at National Guard bases, even though the number of F-15EXs that will ultimately be bought would be cut nearly in half. 

A top Air Force general said last year that budget constraints are forcing the service to rely more than they had planned in the years ahead — and more than they would like — on older F-15Es instead of the newer and more capable F-15EXs. 

“Competing needs,” led by modernizing the service’s nuclear missiles and bombers, are “crowding out” funding for other programs, said Air Force Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, at a House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee hearing last April. 

To save money, the Air Force is retiring some older aircraft and procuring fewer than planned numbers of newer types, including the F-15EX. The net result: The Air Force will shrink its squadrons by roughly 400 planes in the next five years, lawmakers said at budget hearings last year.

Space 

On the Space Force, the omnibus report states that the 3-year-old service’s budget projection is “flat and declining over the next five years, even though the Space Force is proposing ambitious plans for new architectures, programs, and mission areas. This apparent mismatch between program scope and overall budget resources raises concerns about the degree to which serious analysis or long-term planning has been done to assess the realism and affordability of its portfolio of programs.”

The appropriations report directs the Air Force to brief lawmakers by February with an assessment of the risks associated with the Space Force budget projection and how they will be managed.

The briefing must analyze “the projected cost, affordability, and executability of the full portfolio of classified and unclassified programs and activities funded in the Space Force accounts,” the report said. 

The fiscal 2023 budget request contained $24.5 billion for the Space Force. Omnibus negotiators said their final agreement added $2.2 billion for a variety of space initiatives, including making satellite constellations less vulnerable to being disabled or destroyed.

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