Surfing the bow wave: US airpower and the FY2019 defence budget


UNDER PROPOSALS by America’s military, US airpower developments will reflect priorities set out in the National Defense Strategy, released last year. Great power competition – Russia and China – is now the primary challenge to US national security, requiring “a strategy driven budget”, in the words of Under Secretary of the Air Force Matt Donovan, speaking in Washington on February 12.

Great power competition – the arms race – is expensive. It was expensive in the Cold War years. It was expensive when Britain and Germany were building dreadnought battleships before World War One. It is going to be expensive to build Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ 2017 goal of a “larger, more capable and more lethal joint force”.

The US Department of Defense budget request for FY2019 arrived in Congress a week late, on February 12, on the heels of a bipartisan budget agreement. This lifted for two years, through to the end of FY2019, the spending limits imposed by the Budget Control Act (BCA) that were enforced through sequestration, effectively putting aside for later consideration the effects of having to borrow more money. Lifting the BCA limits was an action that US civilian and military defence leaders of the current and previous administrations had wanted.

The FY2019 budget request does not propose major changes in US airpower. It takes decades to develop and procure military aircraft. They remain in service for decades: indeed, up to a century; so lifting the BCA limits for two years is not going to provide room to execute long-term plans or effect substantial change. Rather, it provides a brief interval in which services start to accommodate change.

Air Force budget request

The Air Force’s $156.3 billion request – a 6.6% increase over the previous year – provides an opportunity to start to deal with the impending aircraft procurement bow wave. Spending on the ‘big three’ procurements – Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, Boeing KC-46A Pegasus tanker and Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider stealth bomber – plus the T-X trainer is all planned to increase and might drown other priorities. The Air Force wants to start to surf the bow wave, rather than be swamped by it.

The FY2019 budget request has few surprises. Most changes are incremental and had been planned for years. More than the other services, the Air Force will have to deal with the upcoming recapitalisation of the US strategic nuclear deterrent, which has not been upgraded since the end of the Cold War. This includes increased research and development funding for the long-range stand-off (LRSO), nuclear-capable, bomber-launched missile, which will likely incorporate multiple advanced technologies, including its propulsion system. Under Secretary Donovan said: “Secretary Mattis was a sceptic at first, but did a deep dive [study] and became convinced that it is what we need. The budget fully funds LRSO through the FYDP [future years defense plan].”

No funding for the Joint Standoff Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) recapitalisation programme is included in the budget request, which said Major General John Pletcher, the Air Force’s budget director, in Washington on February 12, “reallocates that funding to achieve advanced battle management systems for the future through a new incremental approach”. Current source selection for the programme will continue, however, and Congress will have the final say on its future. While a recent study reported the current JSTARS system could fly until around 2030, General Pletcher said it would be operational “through the mid-2020s”. He also said: “In this budget, we also begin development of the replacement engine for the B-52H.” This will enable it to remain in service until the 2050s. The budget request announced plans to retire B-1B and B-2A bombers as B-21s become operational in the mid-2020s.

Production of the F-35 will not be accelerated beyond that currently planned, requesting 48 US Air Force F-35As (two more than in FY2018 and a total of 258 over the next five years). This will enable the Air Force to increase its fighter squadrons from 55 to 58 within the same timescale. While increasing the production rate could help drive down per-aircraft F-35 procurement costs, Donovan said the: “future of the programme depends on the cost of sustainment”.

The budget request also includes 15 KC-46As, 29 (up from 16 the previous year) General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper UAVs, ten Sikorsky HH-60W combat rescue helicopters (the type’s first year of low-rate initial production), three Boeing WC-135W atmospheric sampling aircraft (to be converted from KC-135R tankers) and one replacement Lockheed Martin MC-130J Commando II special operations aircraft, as well as what General Pletcher described as: “continued improvements to the F-15 and F-16”.

Pletcher said: “Accelerating warfighter readiness continues to remain our primary objective.” The Air Force’s request increases from 1.42 to 1.45 million the number of funded flight hours, of which 1.2 million are for peacetime training. Other service requests include similar incremental increases.

Benefiting from the focus on great power competition is the Air Force’s OA-X (observation-attack experimental) programme that now involves just two single-engine turboprop light attack aircraft, the Sierra Nevada A-29 and the Textron AT-6. Additional funding for this programme reflects the objective of having these or similar aircraft, especially operated by allied forces, able to free US Air Force fighters from having to deploy to support counterinsurgency operations, which Donovan said allows the higher-tech machines to “concentrate on the high-end fight”.

Other services and programmes

The Navy’s aircraft procurement is also largely steady state, with some incremental increases over FY2018. It includes nine F-35Cs (up from four), 24 Boeing F/A-18E/F Block III Super Hornet fighter/attack aircraft (up from 14), ten Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, four Northrop Grumman E-2D radar aircraft, seven Bell-Boeing Osprey tilt-rotors (Marine as well as Navy versions) and three Northrop MQ-4C Triton maritime UAVs (same as last year). The first four MQ-25A Stingray Carrier Based Air Refueling System UAV air vehicles are delayed a year, to FY2023, and the type’s initial operational capability to FY2026.

Marine Corps procurements, included with the Navy, include F-35Bs (steady at 20), eight Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion heavy lift helicopters (in low-rate initial production, up from four), six new Sikorsky VH-92 presidential helicopters and 25 Bell AH-1Z attack helicopters (up from 23).

Army helicopter procurements are also holding steady, with 60 Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopters, seven Boeing CH-47F Chinook medium lift helicopters and 50 Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters, all largely remanufactured aircraft.

All services will share in the replenishment of munitions stockpiles, including 43,594 Joint Direct Attack Munition guided bomb kits, as well as, Pletcher said, “3,000 [AGM-114] Hellfire missiles, 3,900 [GBU-39/B] Small-Diameter Bomb 1s, and the Advanced Precision-Kill Weapon System”. The Joint Air-Ground Missile Hellfire follow-on will start production in FY2019 with 75 rounds.

Part of the infrastructure spending in the budget request, Pletcher said, will be an increase in the “European Deterrence Initiative to strengthen our alliances. Specifically, this request funds improvements to European airfield infrastructure, invests in war reserve materials, and funds the aircraft and munitions storage facilities in Europe.”

Research and development, testing and evaluation (RDT&E) increases, some 24% for Department of Defense programmes, reflect an increasing concern with countering emerging threats such as cyber-attacks and developing technologies such as artificial intelligence, hypersonics and autonomous operational capabilities. There are also major RDT&E increases for the services. Some of these represent spending on aircraft programmes nearing the procurement stage, such as the B-21, T-X and MQ-25A. Pletcher said: “Increased RDT&E investments prioritise programmes effective in countering long-term competition with China and Russia, and build on the progress of the FY18 budget”. For the Air Force, this will include $504 million on next-generation air-to-air capabilities that will shape what comes after today’s fifth-generation fighters.