WASHINGTON: Three weeks before the official release of the 2021 DoD budget, the annual inter-service battle has turned incendiary — with the latest Molotov cocktail being thrown by supporters of the Air Force arguing that, actually, the Air Force is the loser in the tri-service funding share.
While the Air Force top line 2020 request was $204.8 billion, when the $39.2 billion in funds slated for “pass through” to “space-related intelligence agencies” are accounted for, the service’s actual funding level is $165.5 billion, argues Dave Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Power Studies and a retired Air Force lieutenant general. (Mitchell is run by the Air Force Association and funded largely by corporate sponsors.)
That amended number is “significantly less than the Navy’s $191.4 billion or the Army’s $205.6 billion,” he said, adding that the “Air Force is not getting close to an even share of the DOD budget and is seriously underfunded as a result.”
Further, he said, because the “about $13 billion” in funds that in previous years were slated for Air Force space programs and personnel will now go to the Space Force, “the real AF budget is $152.5, not 204.8!”
Deptula’s comments were in response to Sydney’s story yesterday, citing Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy’s assertions that the Army gets the short shrift in the annual budget — which in turn followed a blunt call on Monday by Chief of Naval Operations Mike Gilday, reported by Paul, for his service to be granted a larger funding share than the other two services.
And, indeed, Deptula’s numbers reflect those in the Air Force’s 2020 budget documentation, in which the service refers to “pass through” funds as “non-blue” money.
The Air Force, however, declined to comment on the ongoing budget squabble.
While service in-fighting for budget share is a perennial fact of political life, this year’s version resembles the fictional, to-the-death “Hunger Games,” as all the services struggle with an essentially flat 2021 DoD top line and a mandate to shift gears away from fighting against low-level insurgencies toward global competition with Russia and China.
Indeed, as we have reported, the Air Force reportedly is eyeing big cuts to legacy aircraft to stay within the two-year budget caps agreed by the White House and Congress last year. One source close to the budget fights said word is that service is looking at an $11 billion to $12 billion “bill” in cuts it has to make, following the pass back from the Office Management and Budget on its draft 2021 budget. That draft, the source said, included cuts to the B-1 and F-15 fleets.
“The rumor mill is churning with lots of thoughts on what the Air Force may try to retire,” said Todd Harrison, Air Force guru at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). ”
“One of the things I’ll be looking for in the Air Force’s proposed force structure changes is whether it divests of entire fleets, which would free up more money to invest in new capabilities, or whether it falls into the trap of partial fleet retirements, which saves less money and drives up the operating costs per aircraft,” he added.
Marty Faga, former head of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), concurred that the actual Air Force budget is less than the notional top line, because the “pass through” budget “includes NRO but other things as well.
“The NRO is a DNI-DoD joint activity, primarily staffed by AF and CIA but with small numbers of Navy and Army people as well,” Faga told me today in an email. But, he explained, “The Air Force gets no say in what the NRO budget is, as most of it is in the National Intelligence Program which is developed by the DNI and put forth by him to the President and the Congress.” (The exact NRO budget is, of course, classified.)
As far as the Space Force funding goes, Brian Weeden of Secure World Foundation noted that those who thought that creating a new service for space would ensure a bigger budget for DoD space programs are sadly mistaken — something that Congress has proven so far in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act and the 2020 DoD appropriations bill signed into law Dec. 20 by President Donald Trump.
“There is bipartisan agreement that the top line funding for the DOD as a whole is not going to increase by much, if at all, over the next several years,” Weeden said. “That means any increased funding for the Space Force will need to come at the expense of the other services, and they will fight tooth and nail before that happens.”
Harrison gently chided the services for losing sight of the Defense Department’s overarching goal. “The fight should not be over which service gets what share of the budget. It should be about how do we most effectively and efficiently implement” the National Defense Strategy.” That said, he conceded that “Some competition among the services in pursuit of the strategy could be a healthy thing.”
Faga, on the other hand, wryly summed up: “I have never understood why the Services would expect that the budget would be divided equally, and I think that it rarely has.”