Air Force “Zero-Based Review” Underway

Air Force Undersecretary Matthew Donovan speaks at an AFA-Air Force breakfast event on Capitol Hill on Thursday. Staff photo by McKinnon Pearse.

Air Force leaders began a “zero-based review” of the service’s programs and activities this week, taking a hard look to see if anything USAF is doing is propelled not by need but inertia, service Undersecretary Matthew Donovan said Thursday.

“We are looking for programs that are no longer needed,” he said in a speech to an AFA audience on Capitol Hill. “The idea is to get after the relevancy of what we do,” he said, noting, “We haven’t done a review like this in more than 20 years.” He said “everything is on the table” in the review, which examines both programs and activities, and each will have to “fight its way back into” the Air Force’s portfolio.

Donovan told reporters afterwards, however, that he doesn’t expect “major changes,” from the review, but mainly “visibility into what we’re doing.” The review, led by USAF’s strategic plans and programs shop, is meant to expose programs that have “stayed under the radar” and escaped cancellation because Hill staffers and members of Congress tend to look only at year-to-year incremental shifts in program funding, and not whether those programs still fulfill genuine needs, he explained.

“It’s time to do a reset,” he added. The review will have a quick turnaround and be concluded March 15, Donovan said, and the results will inform the Fiscal 2020 budget.

This is the ideal time to conduct such a review, Donovan noted, because the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy (previously known as the National Military Strategy), and the Nuclear Posture Review are all finished and were carefully coordinated, so there is certainty about service aims and needs.

President Trump visited the Pentagon to discuss these various reviews with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Thursday. Donovan said a summary of the NDS, which is classified, would be released on Friday.

The strategic guidance, which steers where the Air Force puts its money, is also being overhauled, Donovan reported. The previous version had “many documents embedded in it,” making it unwieldy. “We’re going to shrink it down to one document,” he announced.

Donovan predicted there will “probably” be another continuing resolution rather than a passed budget, and he worried that “as you get further into the year, it’s more likely” that the CR will be yearlong, a situation that would cause grave harm to USAF new starts.

The B-21 bomber, he said, would inevitably suffer delivery delays because of a CR, noting “it starts slowing down the program.” The level of funding in the fiscal year 2019 budget request is “greater” than the 2018 request of $2 billion (which was up from $1.3 billion in Fiscal ’17), and the program would not be able to grow appropriately because spending levels would be stuck at last year’s amount.

“And that applies to any program, not just the B-21,” Donovan noted to reporters.

The bomber is still in the “engineering drawings” and hiring personnel phase, he said, the latter process being nearly complete. For the moment, Donovan said, nothing has happened to move the B-21 from a planned availability “in the mid-2020s.”

A yearlong CR would also hit USAF’s ability to grow from 321,000 to 325,000 people, “and people are our No. 1 readiness issue,” he said. At the same time, it would halt a net $2.7 billion increase in operations and maintenance funding.

Donovan said he’s reluctant to do “anomalies”—wherein the service requests a quick reprogramming of funds from Congress to deal with CR-driven shortfalls—because “the more anomalies we send over, the more likely” a yearlong CR becomes.

While he would not provide any specific previews of the FY ’19 budget request, Donovan said it is “truly strategy driven” and will predictably focus on “people and a sustainable Total Force,” as well boosting readiness accounts, depot maintenance, flying hours, munitions, and modernization.

Donovan complained that the “pass through” accounts—money that goes into the Air Force’s budget but “is not controlled by us” and goes directly to other defense agencies for nuclear programs and intelligence activities—gives members of Congress the false impression that the USAF gets about 20 percent more funding than it actually does. He said he’s “working with people on the Hill” to see if this practice, unique to the Air Force, can be abolished and the service’s budget can be viewed in proper context.

He noted that Pentagon acquisition chief Ellen Lord has “given us back the authority” to make decisions “on most programs,” including those that were taken away from the service when they ran into trouble.

Donovan expressed his support for the OA-X Light Attack Aircraft effort, a report about which is now being reviewed by Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.

If the Air Force, which has “a quarter of its force tied up” in deployments to the Middle East, can “find a cheaper way” to deliver close air support to the troops, “we ought to do it,” Donovan asserted. He said he expected Wilson and Goldfein to make a decision “soon” about whether to pursue the OA-X with a program.

While Donovan wouldn’t say how many F-35s are in the Fiscal ’19 budget request, he told reporters, “We always want to buy as many as we can, as quickly as we can because that reduces our capacity shortfalls. But we have to balance that against all our other priorities.”