Freeing the Space Force from living within the Air Force’s budget was intended to ensure satellites didn’t need to compete for funding with airplanes; the ancillary benefit should have been that airplanes, likewise, should not need to compete for funding solely with space programs.
If there’s a takeaway from the Biden administration’s fiscal 2022 defense budget, it’s this: The Air Force remains the billpayer for space capabilities, and it does so at the nation’s peril.
Among the five military services, only two are indispensable in every future conflict, and both reside within the Department of the Air Force. Each military service takes the lead in its own domain, yet victory in each depends—to the extreme—on what the Air Force and Space Force bring to the fight. Winning demands success in the air and from outer space.
To meet that need, the administration proposes to raise Space Force spending by 13 percent in 2022, to $17.4 billion. Space procurement grows even faster, by 19.7 percent, while research increases by a healthy 6.9 percent. This is exactly what planners wanted in giving the Space Force equal and independent status as a military service; it’s also clear that such growth is double or triple what would have been possible had space remained an Air Force domain.
Yet America is not investing what it should in the Air Force. Worse, enduring budget practices burden both the Air Force and Space Force with a weighty pass-through charge that in 2022 alone would divert 18.4 cents of every Department of the Air Force dollar to programs controlled and operated by agencies outside the department.
This pass-through funding adds up to $39 billion for intelligence programs and amounts to 5.5 percent of all defense spending. For the Air and Space Forces, it is a black hole, sucking sustenance from their fiscal lifeline.
The pass-through imposes a massive distortion on every aspect of the defense budget, but its impact on air and space is greatest. Without the pass-through, the Air Force and Space Force budget is a tad less than the Army budget and substantially less than the Department of the Navy (to compare these in detail, see the defense budget breakdowns on page 70). With the pass-through included, however, the Department of the Air Force appears to spend more than the Army and about as much as the Navy and Marines.
The net result: When leaders look at top-line budget numbers, they are fooled into believing their investment in defense is balanced among the services. In fact, however, the department budgets are not on par, and American air power and our national defense suffer as a result.
The pass-through problem is only getting worse. The proposed budget increases pass-through spending by nearly $3.3 billion, or 9.1 percent. By contrast, the Air Force grows by less than the rate of inflation, just 2.2 percent.
To get to that level, Air Force leaders had to take drastic actions that run counter to long-held policy:
- Cutting Air Force aircraft procurement by $3.2 billion in 2022 and munitions purchases by about $500 million undermines modernization and readiness. The planned buy of just 48—rather than 60—F-35s, with spare parts and related systems and components, saves $1.73 billion in the short term, but pushes up unit costs in the out-years and slows progress toward modernizing the fleet.
- Retiring 201 aircraft saves $1.4 billion in operating costs near- term, but leaves the Air Force with fewer planes to meet the same mission in the short term. The Air Force suffers both a shortfall in capability—that is, stealthy 5th-generation fighters vs. older 4th-generation planes—and a capacity gap, meaning it lacks enough jets to take to war when needed. Two years ago, acquiring 72 fighter jets per year—60 F-35s and 12 F-15EXs—was the service’s highest priority. It should remain so today.
- Prioritizing research over procurement, the Air Force is boosting its research, development, test, and engineering spending by $2.2 billion. Those funds support critical needs like the B-21 bomber, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent nuclear missile to replace Minuteman III, and the Next-Generation Air Dominance program, which the service hopes can deliver the first in a series of 6th-generation fighters and related systems by the end of this decade.
America has grown accustomed to the idea that we never lose jets in combat; that accidents rather than surface-to-air missiles are the primary threats to pilots’ lives; and that we dominate the skies in every fight. Believing that today is to imagine the next wars will be like the last. They won’t be. In the future, should America face war with China, Russia, or even some well-equipped proxy force, sophisticated integrated air defense systems will challenge American air power. Combat losses will be inevitable. Our Air Force must be sized to sustain a war that inflicts losses. We can’t do that building just 60 fighters a year.
The Air Force struggles to tell this story, largely because leaders are constrained by the budget reality imposed on them. It’s time to free the Air Force from the constraints of the pass-through, just as independence freed the Space Force from the limitations of competition inside the Air Force.
Moving the entire pass-through account to the Office of the Secretary of Defense will expose the ruse obscuring the Air Force’s and Space Force’s budgetary reality and provide the maneuver room necessary to gradually build up Air Force and Space Force spending to the levels necessary to meet their obligations under the National Security Strategy.
That strategy starts with deterrence. As long as the United States maintains a formidable and credible threat in the form of highly capable and ready forces, potential adversaries will steer clear of conflict. But if ever the balance of forces tips in their favor, deterrence will fail. The growing sophistication and scale of China’s military is increasing the risk and shortening the time frame to such an inflection point.
Our nation has a choice. It can continue shortchanging our Airmen and Guardians and wait for the day when we no longer possess the credible military power to undergird American diplomacy and deter aggression. Or we can appropriately invest in building up our Air and Space Forces to ensure they match our nation’s strategic aims.
The surest way to make that happen is to take a simple administrative first step: Remove that pass-through account from the Department of the Air Force and free the Air and Space Forces from a $39 billion roadblock to parity.