Department of Air Force Funding Takes Hit in 2021 Spending Bill

Senate appropriators on Nov. 10 released a $696 billion defense funding bill for fiscal 2021 that offers the Department of the Air Force less money than it requested for most spending accounts.

The proposal comes more than a month into the fiscal year, as the federal government is operating under a stopgap spending measure. A funding bill must be signed into law by Dec. 11 to avoid a government shutdown. Lawmakers could also pass another continuing resolution to keep agencies open while they seek compromise.

Senators are offering the Air Force and Space Force $200.4 billion for personnel, procurement, operations, maintenance, and technology development in the base and Overseas Contingency Operations accounts. 

That’s about $7 billion less than the $207.2 billion included in the Department of the Air Force’s fiscal 2021 request. Around $40 billion of that ask is “pass-through” funding, or non-blue money, that goes to other agencies.

Many top Air Force priorities receive the money they seek in the Senate plan.

“The recommendation fully funds the Department of the Air Force request for the B-21 bomber program, recommends $974 million for the Next-Generation Air Dominance program, and supports Air Force nuclear modernization by including $1.5 billion for Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent and $444.4 million for the Long-Range Standoff Weapon programs,” the Senate Appropriations Committee said in a summary of its defense bill.

The legislation also adds 12 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters for a total of 60 jets, as well as eight C-130Js and one E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node plane the Air Force did not request. It similarly backs the A-10 attack plane and KC-10 and KC-135 tanker programs the service wanted to scale back.

Still, senators are raising concerns about the Air Force’s future force structure plans. The service made tough choices about what to keep and what to cut in 2021, but lawmakers are still unsure how those decisions affect the bottom line.

“The committee recognizes that budgetary pressures associated with balancing near-term readiness and future modernization priorities frequently result in the military services proposing force structure divestitures and retirements,” appropriators said. “Despite the magnitude of these decisions, there is not a clear crosswalk to the budget justification materials submitted with the president’s budget request that highlights detailed funding implications.”

To fix that, senators want the Air Force to create a new part of the budget that shows the savings it would gain from divesting or retiring pieces of its inventory. That paperwork should show each type of aircraft on the chopping block, how many would be cut, and an explanation of the associated savings. The Senate Appropriations Committee wants to begin talks about the new descriptions with the Air Force and Pentagon comptrollers and House appropriators within 45 days of the spending bill’s enactment.

If the measure makes it into the final legislation, the Air Force would be required to include retirement savings data in the fiscal 2023 request. 

“This exhibit shall not only serve the purpose of demonstrating the savings associated with such proposals, but also the cost implications of any changes to the plan as proposed,” lawmakers wrote. “Once the exhibit has been refined for Air Force aircraft divestiture and retirements, the committee will consider expanding the scope to include changes in force structure as proposed by other military services going forward.”

It’s not the first time lawmakers have raised questions about the Air Force’s retirement plans, but it is particularly notable alongside Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s push to “accelerate change or lose.”

To get 2021 appropriations signed into law soon, the Senate is bypassing its committee markups and amendment process. House and Senate lawmakers must still cobble together compromise legislation and pass the bills in each chamber before sending them to President Donald J. Trump for approval.

Here’s how proposed Department of the Air Force funding breaks down:

Funding CategoryBase BudgetOverseas Contingency Operations
Active-duty military personnel$32.9B $1.1B
Reserve military personnel$2.2B$16.8B
Guard military personnel$4.5B$5.8M
USAF Active-duty O&M$34.5B$17.7M
Reserve O&M$3.3B$30.1M
Guard O&M$6.8B $175.6M
Aircraft Procurement$18.4B$569M
Missile Procurement$2.3B$223.8M
Ammunition Procurement$562.8M$785.6M
Other Procurement$23.2B$355.3M
USAF R&D$35.7B$5.3M
USSF O&M$2.5B$77.1M
USSF Procurement$2.2B0
USSF R&D$10.4B0