Looming Budget Cuts Could Devastate Air Force, Undermine Deterrence
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Senior Air Force officials are warning that the current impasse in Congress concerning passage of a budget for the fiscal year beginning October 1 could result in long-term damage to their service’s readiness and modernization plans.

The looming reduction in expected funding for fiscal 2024 would undercut the Air Force’s ability to execute the national defense strategy, and potentially erode the nation’s deterrent posture aimed at preventing war.

I gleaned this from a meeting I attended on September 20 with several of the service’s top officials, including Acting Under Secretary Kristyn Jones, Assistant Secretary for space acquisition Frank Calvelli, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for budget Major General Michael Greiner.

The officials were unusually frank in expressing their concerns about impending budget moves, and their alarm extends beyond the possibility that the military departments will begin the new fiscal year without a budget to fund operations.

Delays in approving budgets are a common problem on Capitol Hill, and when they threaten to leave the government unfunded the usual response is for the two chambers to jointly adopt a “continuing resolution” that keeps departments running at prior-year funding levels.

Assuming the Republican majority in the lower chamber manages to overcome its current difficulties and generates a continuing resolution (or CR) acceptable to the Senate, that in itself would impede Air Force programs until a real budget can be approved—typically around the holidays.

But that is only the beginning of the problem this year, because the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 that President Biden signed into law on June 3 to suspend the federal debt limit into 2025 contained onerous provisions bearing upon the availability of funding.

If Congress does not pass all 12 spending bills for federal agencies by New Year’s Eve and a CR is in effect, then funding for the Air Force and other military services wouldn’t just remain at the 2023 level, it would fall 1% below the enacted amounts.

What’s worse, if Congress can’t complete its budget work by halfway through the fiscal year, meaning April 1, then the cuts become permanent for the entire year. A similar process could unfold in fiscal 2025.

The way CR’s operate, funding for every account and program is capped at prior-year levels until a budget is passed, so officials have little latitude to move money around in order to minimize impacts. Programs that were due to get budget increases don’t, and new starts can’t commence at all.

The services can request that certain must-pay accounts such as personnel be exempted from the strictures of the CR, but if Congress agrees (and it sometimes doesn’t), the cuts for non-exempted programs are bigger.

Bottom line: there is a real possibility that the Air Force could lose $12.7 billion in expected buying power in 2024, with programs that do not escape the CR caps incurring a 9.4% reduction.

That’s assuming Congress agrees to free pay for personnel and nuclear modernization from the CR requirements.

If you think that losing $12.7 billion out of a planned budget of $215 billion isn’t draconian, then consider some of the impacts budget chief Greiner anticipates:

  • Seven national security space launches would be delayed at a time when Secretary Calvelli is struggling to make the military’s space architecture more resilient.
  • Production of the Air Force’s next-generation B-21 bomber, critical to deterring China and shoring up the nation’s aging nuclear deterrent, would be slowed.
  • Increased production of vital munitions would be precluded, leaving the joint force with inadequate stocks to execute a protracted military campaign.
  • Nearly three dozen military construction and housing projects would be deferred despite the urgent need to replace aging infrastructure.
  • Long-planned exercises required to assure readiness and interoperability with allied air force would have to be canceled.
  • Recruitment of new personnel would be under-funded, potentially resulting in a shortage of pilots and maintainers for years to come.

Major General Greiner says that the delay of space launches alone would expose warfighters across the joint force to “massive risk,” and like the other impacts listed, the consequences would stretch for years into the future.

Because the Department of the Air Force supplies critical support to the other military services such as airlift, aerial refueling, and orbital relay of communications, its funding shortfalls would compound the problems of those services, which face their own impacts from the looming budget cuts.

Air Force officials freely admit that if the reductions in funding occur, their service’s ability to execute national strategy will be impaired, and deterrence of aggression might be degraded.

Nobody knows where the threshold lies that might lead emboldened leaders in Moscow or Beijing to undertake aggression, but when you say deterrence is degraded, that presumably means war is more likely.

The officials are circumspect in discussing the politics of all this, but they clearly fear that many legislators don’t grasp the severity of the military threats the nation faces, and the potential consequences of not looking beyond the partisan disputes of the moment.

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