‘Pass-Through’ Reform, Modernization Among Aerospace Priorities in 2021 NDAA

Lawmakers are preparing their aerospace priorities for the fiscal 2021 defense policy bill, in which the Air Force hopes to see an endorsement of its modernization-heavy, $154.6 billion budget request.

One provision that could have big ripple effects for the service is a push to remove “pass-through” funding from the Air Force’s budget, which critics say makes it seem larger in comparison to the other services.

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) in March introduced the Air Force Budget Transparency Act with the goal of ending pass-through. Of the $207.2 billion total requested for 2021, the Air Force budget includes $38.2 billion that the service doesn’t control. Instead of keeping those funds in USAF’s budget, the legislation would require the Pentagon to move it under defense-wide spending.

“This has resulted in continuous underfunding of the USAF and has done real damage to the Air Force’s ability to modernize the force and prepare for the challenges of the future,” Bacon said in an email. “We need to stop kicking this can down the road and fix it now.”

Stopping pass-through is Bacon’s top service policy priority for this year’s NDAA. The idea could gain traction in Congress as the Air Force crafts the Space Force’s next budget and considers whether some pass-through money should go to the new service instead. If enacted, it would affect fiscal years later than 2020.

“More than 20 percent of the Department of the Air Force budget goes to the Intelligence Community and is not visible to taxpayers or Airmen and Space Force professionals directly involved in combat operations,” Air Force Association President Orville Wright said. “Joint warfighters could be much more decisive in combat operations if the over-classified capabilities in the ‘pass-through’ were visible to them and their leadership.”

After the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act green-lit USAF priorities, like creating a Space Force and starting the F-15EX program, some lawmakers have a similar set of interests for this year’s legislation.

The office of Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), ranking member on the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee, said modernization continues to be a top priority. She believes additional oversight and reform measures will make sure development programs achieve the capabilities they need to meet the National Defense Strategy, which is reorienting the military towards competition with Russia and China.

“This includes continued oversight of fighter force structure modernization with regards to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and F-15EX programs, the T-7A trainer program, and next-generation air dominance initiatives,” Hartzler’s office said. Other offices in both political parties that discussed their priorities with Air Force Magazine noted the F-35 as a continued top interest for 2021, as the program has ramped up but struggled to hit its production projections and rein in costs.

Boeing’s KC-46 Pegasus is top of mind elsewhere on the House Armed Services Committee. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), the top Republican on the seapower and projection forces subcommittee, which handles oversight of the Air Force’s new tanker, said in March the Air Force should only be allowed to buy 12 aircraft instead of 15 as intended until Boeing follows through on its plan to fix the plane’s faulty Remote Vision System. The system is supposed to help Airmen see the refueling boom and the aircraft receiving gas.

“I’m just concerned that all of a sudden, we have an inventory of aircraft that are mission-limited and then if we’re going to retire KC-135s and KC-10s, then instead of actually increasing the availability of tanker aircraft, we’d actually be reducing availability,” Wittman told Air Force Magazine on April 27.

He wants a formal report from the Air Force and Boeing on the KC-46’s problems as it arrives at bases, as well as on the program’s management to address the root causes of those issues. But he’s hesitant to legislate a specific timeline for getting the aircraft ready for operations.

Wittman sees a similar timing issue in the bomber portfolio as the B-21 Raider moves through development. He’s pleased with the B-21’s progress at Northrop Grumman, calling it the world’s most advanced aircraft, but stressed the need to keep an eye on the schedule.

“We have essentially gotten every single bit of efficient service life out of these aircraft, and if we don’t have other ones to replace them, then it puts us in a really tough spot,” he said, noting that he wants to stay on top of conversations about aircraft construction and testing to understand the specifics of what’s happening. “We have no wiggle room in schedule on these. … That, I know, will be front and center as we look at the coming year.”

Hartzler and Bacon are pushing for greater oversight of another key USAF initiative, the Advanced Battle Management System. While Bacon supports ABMS, the Air Force’s vast networking plan to better connect its aircraft and weapons and phase out older platforms like the E-8C Joint STARS, Bacon says transitioning to that vision has to be managed carefully enough to avoid losing capability before there is something to replace it.

“The congressman is working with the USAF to strike a responsible balance between aggressive [Air Force] requests to retire legacy capabilities and the need for demonstrated transformative capabilities to replace them,” his office said.

Bacon also wants the Air Force to speed up procurement of the EC-37B jets that are replacing the EC-130H electronic attack aircraft, as Gulfstream may close its G550 production line.

“Without swift action, the remaining five Compass Call aircraft, or 50 percent, may not be procured before the closure of the line, placing the fleet, and the future of USAF [electromagnetic spectrum] dominance in jeopardy,” Bacon’s office said. “To avoid this outcome, the congressman believes strongly this is the year to complete aircraft procurement.”

Lawmakers listed A-10 modernization, Air National Guard C-130s, personnel programs to improve military programs and scholarships in higher education, diversity initiatives for the service academies, pilot career field, and special operations, basic science and technology research, and jet noise reduction among their other priorities.

Rep. Jackie Speier’s (D-Calif.) bill requiring the Pentagon to implement policy that mirrors the U.S. Air Force Academy’s “Safe to Report” language, which keeps sexual assault victims safe if misconduct charges are levied as a result of reporting and investigating an assault, will be included in the NDAA, a Hill staffer told Air Force Magazine.

Many key members who oversee major initiatives like the Space Force and nuclear modernization declined to comment. HASC Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) is still concerned about the direction of the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program, after Boeing pulled out of the competition while arguing Northrop Grumman has an unfair advantage in the solid rocket motor market.

The upcoming NDAA is likely to have language to fix some of the Space Force’s unresolved issues as it stands up. For example, lawmakers could opt to elevate the three-star vice commander position to a four-star billet to mirror senior uniformed leadership in the other services. Members may also add provisions related to the Space Force’s reserve component, acquisition, or onboarding personnel from across the Pentagon.

After a testy fiscal 2020 legislative process, and as the coronavirus pandemic throws a wrench into regular lawmaking, some members think the 2021 package will come together relatively easily. It’s unclear whether the pandemic will lead lawmakers to be more conservative with typical Pentagon spending this year in favor of funding other pressing needs, or if DOD will receive essentially what it asked for as well as parts of its extra wish list.

Wittman indicated that consensus-building will be easier during the Democrats’ second year in the House majority, after passing the chamber’s version of the NDAA in an unusual party-line vote last year. “Both sides were kind of testing each other” in 2019, he said, but lawmakers have a better understanding of where priorities lie now and will steer clear of letting some of the most divisive issues escalate.

“I think there’s a little more certainty now about how things need to go,” Wittman said. “What transpired last year, I think, is a learning experience for folks. … Conversations are much more toward trying to find common ground than a situation of saying, ‘Here it is, take it or leave it.’”