Air Force to Continue ‘Zero-Based’ Budget Reviews

Annual budget reviews instituted by former Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson should make it easier to settle the hard financial decisions that loom ahead, a top Air Force aide said Aug. 3.

Wilson, who served as secretary from 2017 to 2019, began a department-wide review in January 2018 to cut down on programs and activities worth less than $30 million apiece that no longer merited funding. It was the first such deep-dive in more than 20 years, Matthew P. Donovan, then the Air Force undersecretary, said at the time.

In February, the Air Force said its budget debate, known as a “zero-based review,” for 2021 came up with $4.1 billion in spending cuts over the next five years. Some of that money may have come from decisions to retire aircraft such as the B-1 bomber, A-10 attack plane, and RQ-4 reconnaissance drone.

Anthony P. Reardon, administrative assistant to Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett, indicated those reviews will continue under current service leadership. The discussions are similar to the Army’s “night court” reviews that look at ways to reinvest money in higher service priorities.

“All the ‘zero-based’ reviews with Secretary Wilson, they were extremely effective,” Reardon said during an Air Force Association event. “I think we’ve built a process that’s iterative, so we do it every time now, maybe not to the full-up degree … but we get pretty close to it. So I think if we’re given time, that’s become the normal way of doing business now.”

As the Pentagon prepares for years of little budget growth, thanks to congressional spending agreements and the unexpected expense of coronavirus pandemic relief efforts, the annual process of deciding how best to downsize can make stagnant funding more bearable.

Budget planning happens on three levels now. The Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability office looks at what the service needs in its future force to succeed, then poses that vision to the planners, who figure out how to structure portfolios like procurement and operations. Program managers then try to work their initiatives into that bigger strategic picture.

“Sometimes we get frustrated by bogeys when somebody comes forward and says, ‘I want you to cut this much out of your budget, I want you to move this much in this direction.’ [It] makes it a little bit more challenging,” Reardon said. “But I think the processes that Secretary Wilson put in place are enduring processes, and I think they’re going to make the budget development a little bit easier.”

This year’s budget process has also sped up to get ahead of the November presidential election and a possible transition of power in January, Reardon said.

The Air Force is preparing its fiscal 2022 budget request, after asking for about $169 billion in 2021. However, it’s likely the military will have to work under a continuing budget resolution starting Oct. 1 that holds it to 2020 spending levels and blocks new programs from starting until Congress passes funding bills for the coming fiscal year.