On October 3, 2017, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson delivered a keynote address and joined CSIS scholar Todd Harrison for a discussion on her plan for the future of the Service. When asked about the Air Force’s top acquisition priorities, the Secretary ranked the F-35, the B-21, and the KC-46 as the top three. This is unsurprising, as these are three of the largest programs in the Air Force’s budget and are the same priorities as the previous administration. It was surprising, however, that Secretary Wilson did not mention the other acquisition challenges that the Air Force is facing, such as the Ground Based Nuclear Deterrent (GBSD) program to replace the current fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the program to replace the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft,, or any of the Air Force’s space programs.
Since each Service carefully crafts its budget request to maintain, train, and equip its forces in support of the overall strategy, the Services’ true priorities are often revealed in the president’s budget request for the upcoming fiscal year. The upcoming fiscal year 2019 (FY 2019) President’s Budget Request is expected to be released on Monday February 12th, and will reportedly ask Congress for $716 billion in discretionary funding for national defense. That’s $48 billion more than the previous year’s estimate for FY 2019 of $668 billion, or a 7.2% increase.1
With some extra cash on hand, it will be instructive to see how the Air Force budget changes from the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) projections for FY 2019 in the FY 2018 Presidential Budget Request (which still sits with Congress for appropriation). Will it use the extra money to beef up their F-35 procurements? Or will it invest more in newer programs like the B-21? Or will it increase the space budget, which has been relatively low despite many Air Force and DoD officials asserting that space is indeed a warfighting domain.
The Air Force’s budget request should reflect the general priorities laid out in this year’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) as well as the more specific acquisition priorities of the Service. In a recent interview, Secretary Wilson stated that the priorities would indeed be “driven by the National Defense Strategy, and by the guidance given to us by Secretary Mattis: Restore the readiness of the force, cost-effectively modernize the force, drive innovation for the future, develop exceptional leaders, and deepen our partnerships with our allies. And those are the five things that will shape the force for the future.”2
Another recently released strategy document that should inform the Air Force’s budget request is the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Two of the three legs of the triad, the ground-based ICBMs and bombers, belong to the Air Force. The NPR calls for the continued modernization of the ICBM force with the GBSD program, a program that is expected to cost the United States between $62 – $853 billion (depending on whether one uses the Air Force or the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office’s estimates). The NPR also calls for a robust air-leg of the triad with the continued development of the B-21 bomber and the Long Range Standoff (LRSO) air-launched cruise missile.
The NPR also highlights the space and ground systems that the Air Force maintains to provide command, control, and communications over the entire nuclear arsenal.
“While once state-of-the-art, the NC3 [Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications] system is now subject to challenges from both aging system components and new, growing 21st century threats. Of particular concern are expanding threats in space and cyber space…”4
To modernize and improve the resilience of NC3 satellites and ground systems, the Air Force will need to invest in the development of new or evolved satellites for protected communications and missile warning. This will be a large and expensive undertaking for the Air Force. Prior to the NPR, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that ‘Command, Control, Communications, and Early-Warning Systems’ would cost $184 billion over 30 years. Furthermore, CBO states in their review that “[a]ny changes that the Trump Administration or the Congress makes to modernization plans or the size of nuclear forces could affect these costs.”5 To find the room in its budget for these upgrades, the Air Force may decide push back the timelines of some of its other space programmatic priorities, such as SBIRS and Advanced EHF.6
For non-nuclear missions, the Air Force is still heavily investing in the F-35A and the KC-46. With its increased budget for FY 2019, DoD plans to purchase more F-35s, which almost certainly means a few more F-35A’s for the Air Force.7 In FY 2018 the Air Force requested 46 F-35As, with a projection of purchasing 48 aircraft in FY 2019.8
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Another program to watch in the FY 2019 request is the fate of the recapitalization of the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System program (JSTARS). The decision on the program’s future was made in October of last year but has remained under wraps to be released with the FY 2019 budget request.9 Also in this year’s budget are new wings for the A-10s. In the FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Congress authorized $109 million to maintain and modernize many of their A-10 fleet, specifically updating the wings of the aircraft.10 General Mike Holmes, Head of Air Combat Command, recently announced that the Air Force is requesting to buy even more wings in order to service and maintain their A-10 fleet in the FY 2019 budget request.11
Other big-ticket programs to look out for are: Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization, MC-130J, Combat Rescue Helicopter, Joint Direct Attack Munitions, Long-Range Standoff Weapon, Global Positioning System III, and Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle. For more information on these, see the table below.
The Aerospace Security Project will be watching and waiting to see where the Air Force decides to put its extra budget. Check back in with us after the budget release for some further analysis.
|wdt_ID||Programs||FY 2018 PB Request (FY 2018 $M)||FY 2019 Estimate (FY 2018 $M)||FY 2019 PB Request (FY 2018 $M)||Notes|
|6||Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization||434.07||737.10||659.89|
|7||MC-130J||698.71||468.85||1,337.78||Also includes HC-130|
|9||Combat Rescue Helicopter||354.49||549.98||1,115.63|
|Programs||FY 2018 PB Request (FY 2018 $M)||FY 2019 Estimate (FY 2018 $M)||FY 2019 PB Request (FY 2018 $M)||Notes|