Aircraft and Politics: US Airpower Encounters President Trump

Change in the form of a new presidential administration has arrived in Washington. Nothing – including US airpower – is unaffected.

While the president and the majority in both houses of the US Congress are from the same party, getting things done in Washington is difficult in a way people used to thinking in terms of parliamentary democracies often do not understand.

Politics aside, however, implementing change in airpower is difficult and expensive. It can take up to 15 years to turn a prototype into an operational aircraft. The aerospace industry, smaller since the end of the Cold War, is not set up to handle rapid changes, up or down, in production.

No Money, No Airpower

Currently, the Department of Defense (DoD) is being funded not, as it is supposed to be, by a FY2017 Defence Appropriation, but by a Continuing Resolution (CR). Operating under a CR until at least April, the military cannot start new programmes or change production unless Congress passes a specific waiver, which it has done for some procurement programmes, such as the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus tanker.

The CR has halted some airpower programmes. The US Air Force wants to start experiments potentially leading to an observation attack experimental (OA-X) light attack aircraft. The new Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, is known to be interested in the OA-X. When he was in command of US Central Command as a US Marine Corps general, he conducted a combat evaluation of the concept using refurbished Rockwell OV-10 Bronco turboprops. On January 6, Deborah Lee James, outgoing Secretary of the Air Force, identified another affected programme: “We want to move as expeditiously as possible on the EC-130H [Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft] cross deck [to the EC-37B using the Gulfstream G550 airframe], but that will be held up by the CR.”

Even once the CR ends, it will not be full speed ahead for the new administration. Congress will have to pass the FY2017 appropriation bill (step one). President Trump announced on January 27 he will ask for a supplemental FY2017 appropriation bill to fund “new planes, new ships, new resources and new tools” (step two). To implement this step, on January 31, Mattis signed a memorandum stating the DoD will ask Congress for additional FY2017 funding by March 1.

Next, Congress will have to deal with the FY2018 budget request, which was ready to go before the new administration arrived in town, though it has said it will make changes (step three). The January 31 memorandum promised a “comprehensive but accelerated” review, led by the current Deputy Secretary, the highly regarded Dr Robert Work, before the budget request is submitted to Congress by May 1. The memorandum postpones major new procurement starts until FY2019.

The Beechcraft AT-6 is a light attack variant of the Texan II trainer and maybe a possible contender for the yet-to-be defined US Air Force OA-X programme. Beechcraft

Congress is supposed to pass a budget and other legislation, including the FY2018 defence authorisation and appropriation bills, before FY2017 ends on September 30 (steps four and five).

The new administration will write the first draft of its proposed changes to US airpower over its four-year term on a clean slate in 2018 in the form of a new capstone national security strategy document. Mattis said a fiveyear defence plan for 2019–2023 “will also contain an ambitious reform agenda, which will include horizontal integration across DoD components to improve efficiency and take advantage of economies of scale.”

An F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 86 (VFA 86) ‘Sidewinders’ on the flight deck of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Baldock/US Navy

Airpower and the BCA

Even if Congress manages to do all these things – which could be pushed aside by the administration and Congress’s competing priorities – it still will not have addressed the one money issue service secretaries and chiefs of staffhave identified for years as the worst problem coming out of Washington: the threat of sequestration and the loss of any funds that exceed caps established by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA). Sequestration affects long-term planning and nearterm policy implementation alike. In 2013, the then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called it “a dangerous tool to impact the country”.

Despite the incoming Trump administration promising to do away with them, limitations of the BCA may continue. Unless Congress acts (which will require at least the acquiescence of 60 of 100 US senators), the BCA will remain the law of the land, leaving Congress and the administration looking for politically feasible work-arounds. There is widespread agreement that the DoD requires resources beyond the caps imposed by the BCA. The Obama administration prepared a FY2018 defence spending request that exceeded the caps.

Political realities make changing or removing the BCA problematic. One workaround the Obama administration and Congress used while keeping the BCA in effect was using supplemental, uncapped Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding. This is likely to continue under Trump’s administration, but Mick Mulvaney, previously a congressman and the new head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), has said he is against this use of OCO.

Competing Airpower Priorities

The Trump administration has reported it would ask for more funding for defence. Where this will go is uncertain. Mattis stresses meeting near-term readiness needs above initiating new procurements, which will be done at “the maximum responsible rate”. The most significant need for additional funding is to modernise the US nuclear strategic deterrent. The US Air Force needs to pay for Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider stealth bombers and Long Range Stand Off(LRSO) air-to-surface missiles. The US Air Force is currently encountering an aircraft procurement bow wave – paying for multiple new production programmes – that threatens to swamp other priorities by the middle of the next decade.

The US Navy is not facing as dramatic an aircraft procurement funding problem, but must still come up with funding for a new class of ballistic missile submarines. If, as it has suggested, the new administration wants to expand the navy to a total of 355 warships, any new surface ships will require additional helicopters and unmanned air vehicles.

Plans to expand the US Army and US Marine Corps will, if they come to pass, require money for recruiting and training personnel rather than accelerating aircraft development – such as the Army’s nextgeneration future vertical lift helicopters – or increasing aircraft procurement.

The F-35C Carrier Variant is undergoing a programme review which will include a direct comparison with the latest Block III version of the Super Hornet. Lockheed Martin

Doing it Differently

On January 16, Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain, himself a former Navy light attack pilot, offered a proposal for changes to the defence budget. McCain would add $54 billion in FY2018 and $420 billion over five years, requiring Congress to raise the BCA caps or an expanded use of uncapped OCO funds.

McCain proposed funding for 200 OA-X aircraft, increasing to 300 after 2022. When asked about McCain’s support for OA-X, US Air Force Chief of StaffGeneral David Goldfein termed it “a great idea”. McCain would continue production of the US Navy’s Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet (58 aircraft) and EA-18G Growler (16 aircraft) while accelerating Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II production, concentrating on fielding US Marine Corps F-35Bs (an additional 20) to replace aging F/A-18 Hornets and AV-8B Harrier IIs and allowing the US Navy to deploy its big-deck amphibious warfare ships to supplement its aircraft carriers when needed, operating air groups of up to 20 F-35Bs. Commenting on McCain’s proposal during a January 17 talk in Washington, Admiral John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, said: “If you think about the introduction of the F-35 into our amphibious warfare force, that might be a systemic way to get after it.”

The Congress has passed a waiver to the continuing resolution so procurement of the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus tanker can continue. Boeing

Change May Cut Both Ways

Military aircraft programmes may experience cuts as well as growth during the next four years. In December, while still President-Elect, Donald Trump drew worldwide attention with Twitter messages identifying Presidential Aircraft Recapitalisation (PAR) and the F-35 Lightning II as both costing too much. He suggested the first be cancelled and the second be competed against by a new version of the Super Hornet.

Secretary James saw the tweets as potentially positive: “The President-Elect is going to focus on the taxpayer dollars, on efficiencies, and that’s an important focus. It’s an unusual approach. I am not sure there is another example of doing a deep dive into a programme at this point [in an administration], but cost control matters. Any new administration brings a new Commander-in-Chief and can order a termination, a left turn, a right turn, a different approach to any system. So it [competition or cancellation] is in the realm of possible.”

James also pointed out that the chiefs of staffof each of the services are also the chief requirements officers of their service, and would be responsible for explaining why, for example, a new presidential transport would require uniquely powerful (and protected) command and control capabilities and why even the best Super Hornet may not meet the F-35’s requirement. She said: “The users set the requirements in the first place. The requirements of the F-35 are crucial. The programme is coming along. Additional cost controls and efficiencies are appreciated.”

McCain has also recently criticised the F-35 programme. In a January 10 letter to Marilyn Hewson, Lockheed Martin’s Chief Executive Officer, he said that despite decreasing unit costs of production aircraft there is a continued need for development spending and funding to address issues identified in operational testing. The FY2016 report released by the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation in January, highlighted the size and scope of the F-35 programme. McCain also criticised the current US Air Force validated requirement for 1,763 F-35As as unrealistic, but did not call for near-term cuts in procurement.

Programme reviews of the F-35C – which will include a direct comparison with the Super Hornet Block III – and PAR, were announced by the DoD on January 27. Mattis said the F-35 review was aimed at identifying “opportunities to significantly reduce costs while meeting requirements”.

Trump’s twitter feeds leave unanswered the question of whether the new administration is looking to claim a nearterm victory by appearing to drive down the cost of a couple of expensive aircraft types, but coming to grips with and addressing the underlying causes of expensive aircraft will require hard decisions to be made; everything the DoD buys costs too much and takes too long.

Causes include lack of predictability in funding (ending BCA caps would help) and requirements that ask more of aircraft than is require.

Cuts in infrastructure – the DoD is paying for stateside bases it no longer requires – and in regulations and legislation that ensure it takes longer and a lot of money to take an aircraft from concept to prototype to operational status are required. These are the kinds of action the Trump administration will have to use its political capital on to achieve if it is serious about cutting costs to make aircraft and weapon systems less expensive to procure.

Concentrating on unit cost is often misleading. The inefficiencies inherent in the US procurement system, refiected in the high unit costs inspired Trump to send out his twitter feeds, and certainly need to be addressed.

Similarly, it remains uncertain what impact the new administration’s “America first” rhetoric will have, either at the strategic level – where the US has been leader of a world coalition of democracies since 1945 – or the programme level – where the F-35 gained widespread international participation through a commitment to equal treatment for all partners, depending on their investment rather than nationality.

Because President Trump has been critical of US allies for not investing sufficiently in common defence, especially NATO members for not meeting agreedupon guidelines of spending 2% of gross domestic product, 20% of which should be in investment spending including procurement, so the new administration may encourage US allies to buy additional aircraft. as well.

No Quick Answers

Whatever changes the Trump administration makes, it is unlikely to have an immediate impact on US airpower. Even high-priority programmes such as the B-21 bomber will not be in service until after the next presidential election in 2020, but the need for modernisation in US airpower is evident. When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in 2009: “We need to focus on the wars of the present rather than possible wars of the future,” he drove his point home by curtailing production of the F-22 Raptor and buying unmanned aerial vehicles and MC-12 Liberty intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of StaffGeneral Michael Moseley were asked to resign by Gates in early June 2008: the politically correct terminology for firing both men, who thought the F-22 Raptor decision was a bad idea. In the editor’s opinion, curtailing F-22 production was a deplorable decision.

Few would confidently repeat Gates’ statement today. The “war of today” – a sustained but limited air campaign against ISIS insurgents in Syria and Iraq – may well be transformed into something different under the Trump administration, which in a national security memorandum issued on January 28 said it would escalate the intensity of the conflict. This will require a new set of priorities for US airpower funding, including additional munitions, operations and maintenance to sustain more combat sorties.

The new administration’s rhetoric makes it difficult to predict where it will put its money in the future. Changes in priorities and strategy may make today’s considerations seem as outdated as Gates’ does today, when his “wars of the future” may well be ever closer.

Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) is proposing acceleration of the F-35 Lightning II production, concentrating on fielding US Marine Corps F-35Bs. Lockheed Martin