Air Force secretary vows to ‘protect’ big-ticket programs in budget fight

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Air Force Secretary Michael Donley on Monday signaled the service is ready for a fight and vowed to “protect” most big-ticket hardware programs from steep budget cuts. 

While Donley acknowledged some cuts are unavoidable, the secretary peppered his prepared speech with explanations of the pitfalls of reducing spending. 

And when he addressed hardware programs the Air Force needs to develop, purchase or modernize, he said he intended to safeguard the service’s prize platforms from cuts. 

The secretary’s speech came as defense firms signal that they will lobby hard against deep cuts to the Pentagon’s budget. They’ve been joined by a number of GOP lawmakers, including Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who said he would quit the deficit supercommittee if it enacts more cuts to defense spending. 

Donley said defense “cannot be exempted” from budget cuts since defense spending accounts for about 19 percent of the federal budget. 

The August debt deal mandated $350 billion in national security spending cuts over a decade, which Pentagon officials “considered achievable,” Donley said at an Air Force Association-sponsored conference.

Still, Donley said, the cuts mean that “we will need to accept greater risk” in some areas, and that the Pentagon will have to make “some tough choices about the core tenets of our national security strategy.”

Air Force and Pentagon officials are reviewing several “alternative” plans to implement that $350 billion cut. But “no final decisions have been made,” he added.

Donley argued in defense of spending on a number of hardware programs.

He pushed back at suggestions from some think tanks and lawmakers that cuts should be made to the F-35 fighter program — the largest and most expensive Defense Department program ever.

“With a fighter fleet now averaging 22 years old and with two decades of declining fighter force structure, modernizing our aging and smaller fighter force depends on the … capabilities of the [F-35],” Donley said. “Simply put, there is no alternative for the F-35 program. It must succeed.”

Donley also placed the multibillion-dollar effort to develop a new bomber aircraft on his don’t-cut list, even though congressional aides and defense analysts have questioned whether it can be afforded.

“Developing the ‘long-range strike family of systems,’ including the new bomber, is essential,” Donley said.

Budget-minded analysts have pointed to the need to end permanent basing of troops and equipment around the world to bring down operating budgets.

Will Donley and the Air Force consider such cuts?

“We are committed to maintaining an overseas presence which ensures regional stability, enables sustained engagement with key security partners and supports the rapid response, global mobility and communications on which our joint force depends,” Donley answered.

Since 9/11, the service has purchased a considerable amount of aircraft, drones and other systems used for surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence collection. The secretary said the service must “sustain” and “build upon” that trend.

He also said the Air Force must move forward with buying a new tanker aircraft fleet to replace the current fleet of tankers, which average 49 years of age. Boeing won a $35 billion contract earlier this year to build 179 new tanker planes.

Buying space systems to “replenish and modernize” aging orbital platforms “must continue,” Donley said, and Air Force spending that goes to support the U.S. Special Operations Command’s “missions in the shadows” must be sustained.

Donley also said Air Force systems like nuclear bomber planes and intercontinental ballistic missiles must be sustained, as should the Navy’s sea-based ballistic missiles. 

Those three make up America’s nuclear triad.

“Each leg of this triad has strengths and weaknesses, but as the U.S. nuclear arsenal gets smaller, and the number and diversity of nuclear-armed powers increases, the flexibility in our nuclear triad becomes even more important. We must maintain the nuclear triad,” Donley said.

He also placed his service’s maintenance depots on the protected list, saying going below three such facilities “would displace our skilled workforce and would be cost-prohibitive.”

Some experts have said the military services might be forced to shutter and consolidate some bases and facilities across the United States, but Donley said: “We are committed to maintaining an Air Force presence in each state, to include at least one active-duty, Reserve or Air National Guard unit.”

Lawmakers and Pentagon leaders say budget-cutting efforts will require the consideration of military personnel costs, including healthcare and retirement benefit reforms.

Donley said the service “must not break faith” with its personnel, but because personnel costs account for up to 40 percent of its budget, “everything needs to be on the table for consideration.”

Attendees at the three-day conference seeking clarity on how the debt deal funding cuts will affect the air service found few answers in Donley’s remarks. 

But his speech confirms what defense analysts are predicting: A fight among the four military services to protect their pet projects already has begun.

This story was posted at 12:05 p.m. and updated at 7:48 p.m.