With a couple of notable exceptions, House and Senate lawmakers on a pair of influential committees expressed general agreement June 16 and 17 with the Air and Space Forces’ strategic priorities and budget choices as well as the services’ plans for confronting modern-day challenges and threats.
Across two days of hearings before the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee, Acting Secretary of the Air Force John P. Roth, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond laid out both the near term and longer range budget and operational plans.
All three emphasized that both services are moving aggressively to offset threats from China and Russia while continuing to modernize, reshaping the force to face threats expected in 2030, and redoubling efforts, as Roth said, “to rid our ranks of any corrosive elements and injustices that degrade our ability to provide a lethal, ready force.”
“The long-term strategic competition with China and Russia demands we focus on the capabilities we need today to win tomorrow,” Roth told the House Armed Services Committee on June 16 and the Senate Armed Services Committee the next day.
“Our nation’s competitive strategic advantage relies on air and space superiority, which is underpinned by rapid technological advancement and the extension of space as a warfighting domain,” he said, delivering the same message to the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 17.
The so-called “posture hearings” before both committees are an annual rite, triggered each year after the White House releases the federal government’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year. The hearings give lawmakers serving on committees insight into the priorities and policies of the Air and Space Forces as well as the trade-offs at work. The hearings also give lawmakers an opportunity to ask questions.
Throughout both hearings, all three Department of the Air Force officials emphasized the need for the Air and Space Forces to continue breaking free from an entrenched culture, the need to move faster and to try new methods and approaches. They also highlighted the importance of space and how it has evolved into a “contested” domain.
“The strategic environment has rapidly evolved and we haven’t changed fast enough to keep pace,” Brown told the Senate committee, repeating word-for-word the warning he delivered the day before to lawmakers in the House.
“Competition and future warfare will be conducted across all domains simultaneously,” Brown said. “It will be a trans-regional and global undertaking with complex actions and actors intertwined.”
The importance of space, and the need for the Space Force as an independent branch of the military, was not in dispute.
“I think it was absolutely necessary,” House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), said of creating the Space Force, which is mid-way through its second year in existence.
“Space is essential to everything we do. We have to make sure our satellites are survivable, redundant and they continue to do the critical work that they do,” Smith said, adding, “we have to make sure we have the architecture up there that we need and that we can protect it, even in time of conflict.”
“We have long understood that our nation is strongest economically, diplomatically, and militarily when we have access to, and freedom to maneuver in space,” he said. “For the past three decades, we have been able to take that access and freedom for granted.
“Unfortunately, as the National Defense Strategy and the newer Interim National Security Strategy identified, this is no longer the case,” Raymond said, pointing out both China and Russia “are rapidly developing their own space capabilities.”
Both countries, he said, “are building weapon systems specifically designed to deny U.S. capabilities” that include jamming of U.S. satellites.”
They also are fielding “directed energy systems that can blind, disrupt, or damage our satellites; anti-satellite weapons in space that are designed to destroy U.S. satellites; and cyber capabilities that can deny our access to the domain,” he said.
The Air and Space Forces released their combined budget proposal on May 28 as part of the Biden administration’s overall spending request for the 2022 fiscal year. The Department of the Air Force’s request calls for $173.7 billion, a 3% increase over the current budget. The Air Force’s budget of $156.3 billion represents a 2.3% increase, and the Space Force’s budget of $17.4 billion is a 13.1% increase from FY 2021.
The budget is designed to be a catalyst to modernize the Air Force and continue the evolution of the Space Force. It calls for investing in the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, the replacement for the aging Minuteman III; Next-Generation Air Dominance, envisioned as the Air Force’s next state-of-the-art aircraft; and space-based capabilities such as the Next-Gen Overhead Persistent Infrared missile warning system. It also pushes forward the Advanced Battle Management System, the Department’s contribution to Joint All Domain Command and Control.
Additionally, the proposed budget includes funding to better address sexual assault, suicide, and disparate treatment of Airmen and Guardians. The proposal includes $6 million for diversity and inclusion initiatives to include new training and recruiting scholarships.
All of those programs and funding priorities, the three leaders told the committees, are necessary to meet the demands of the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance and the priorities established by President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, as well as ensuring readiness, retention and the development of new technologies.
While there was general agreement over the overarching strategies and priorities, there also were concerns.
The most frequent complaint was about problems continuing to slow the full use of KC-46 Pegasus tankers and the sustainment costs of the F-35 Lightning II fifth-generation fighter. Three times during the House hearing, the leaders were asked if the contract for the KC-46 should be rebid.
Roth responded each time that an Air Force analysis has concluded it is both more cost effective and faster to continue working with the primary contractor, Boeing Co., to resolve the problems than to start over.
Similar questions were asked both days about the cost of maintaining F-35s and how to increase the plane’s “mission capable” rate. Brown said addressing those issues is a high priority, noting that the F-35 “is the cornerstone of our fighter fleet” and the aircraft’s mission capable rate is currently “on par with the rest of our fighter fleet.”
He said there are continuous discussions with the contractor to find ways to drive maintenance costs down while also ensuring there are enough maintainers – with the proper training and certification – to service the aircraft.
Roth noted to House lawmakers the cost will also come down as more planes are added to the fleet.
Aside from those topics, the three leaders fielded questions on an array of subjects ranging from basing decisions to pilot training and retention, to how the services are coping with climate change, sexual assault and harassment, base housing, and, as in previous years, the future of the A-10 Thunderbolt II.