The Air Force is spinning toward a $4 billion financial disaster
WASHINGTON — Hurricane relief efforts at Tyndall Air Force Base will begin lapsing Wednesday due to a lack of funds, preventing the start of all new work and deferring more than 120 projects planned to begin after May 1.
But that’s just the start of the Air Force’s money problems, which have resulted in a shortfall of more than $4 billion in fiscal 2019.
If the Air Force doesn’t get that funding, it will be forced to ground combat aircraft, defer at least 61 facility repair projects at various bases and halt certain aircraft maintenance actions. Key weapons programs — like hypersonic weapons development — would be slowed down and become more costly, and non-deploying squadrons may have their flying hours stripped away, warned Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in a March 6 memo obtained by Defense News.
“We need sufficient reprogramming for the Air Force to avoid significant negative impacts on the readiness of the force to fight,” Wilson wrote. “These FY 2019 budget impacts, left unmitigated, will drive negative impacts to the Air Force readiness and lethality.”
The money the service needs in FY19 falls into three categories:
- It needs $1.2 billion in additional funding for hurricane and flood recovery at Tyndall AFB, Fla., and Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., according to service.
- It needs to transfer $366 million from other accounts so that it can achieve the 80 percent mission capable mandate for the F-35, F-22 and F-16, the memo states.
- It needs permission to shift more than $3 billion in its existing budget so that it can continue funding the development of tech priorities like hypersonics and new missile warning satellites, according to the memo.
During an April 30 roundtable with reporters, John Henderson, assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and energy, said that the lack of funding will keep the service from starting a total of 121 projects at Tyndall.
“These are repair projects for facilities,” he said. “It’s doing initial repairs on roofs, doing mold remediation, completing the demolition on buildings that are partially demolished and have standing [water]. We had 29,000 acres of trees. Seventy-five percent of those trees are knocked over and they’re drying up and becoming a risk — a fire risk.”
Until those projects receive funding, “those facilities will essentially just continue to decay,” he said. “It will leave facilities that are partially destroyed in that state. So in other words when the wind comes up, we still have debris blowing off those buildings until we get them demolished.”
And although Tyndall leadership still plan on moving forward with an Industry Day on May 2, other planning efforts for the long-term reconstruction of the base will also go on hold, Henderson said.
Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have proposed legislation that would boost funding for hurricane and flood recovery efforts, but those bills have stagnated over how much disaster aid to provide Puerto Rico.
The powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., pledged to rebuild Tyndall once the impasse is resolved, but it was unclear when that might be. “I’m hopeful, but I was hopeful it would happen two, three weeks ago and it didn’t. It will happen in some form, the sooner the better,” he said.
Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans are pointing fingers at each other, with the politics surrounding President Donald Trump’s policies at the U.S.-Mexico border entangling the Air Force’s financial reprieve.
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the need at Tyndall and Offutt — as well as the Marine Corps’ requirement for hurricane relief at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina — “underscores the wrong priorities of the administration” after it reprogrammed roughly $1 billion in excess Army funds toward barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“They could have easily moved some of that to Tyndall and Camp Lejeune and kept some of the construction projects going,” Reed said. “Why are we taking $1 billion out of reprogramming and putting it at a project where the NORTHCOM commander said there’s no military threat at the border? Yet we’re ignoring serious storm damage at Tyndall, Offutt and Lejeune.”
“It has been nearly seven months since Hurricane Michael struck Florida’s Panhandle, and we are up against a very real deadline to deliver much-needed resources,” he said. “Tyndall Air Force Base recently served as the training hub for F-22 Raptor fighter pilots and employed thousands in the Panhandle. Now, it faces a May 1 funding deadline to continue repairs. The time for political games and rhetoric is over. It’s time to act.”
Days after visiting Tyndall, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., blamed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for impeding the needed spending bill. Scott serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We want our military to be ready and trained, but we don’t give them the resources to do it—and that’s exactly what this Congress is doing,” Scott said. “If [Schumer] cared about Puerto Rico, if he cared about Florida, he would get the bill on the floor that the president said he would sign and let it pass.”
Henderson told reporters that the Air Force has been working with Congress for six months on a supplemental for hurricane relief for Tyndall.
“We’ve done our part,” he said. “We’ve cash flowed initial recovery and response efforts from our operations and maintenance funds that were originally budgeted for other critical needs on the assurance that we could replenish those funds through supplemental funding later in the year.”
Henderson warned that, without a supplemental, the Air Force could be unable to meet former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ mandate to get its F-35, F-22 and F-16 “pacing squadrons” up to an 80 percent mission capable rate by the end of the fiscal year.
“We’re trying to preserve that,” he said. But “as we start to talk about not doing routine depot maintenance and not executing our flying hours, at some point it could potentially impact flying readiness.”
Wilson’s memo spells out a long list of effects that could occur by September 30, should the Air Force not receive additional money or permission to reroute funds across its accounts. The Air Force did not respond by press time on whether all of the effects listed in the memo could still materialize.
What is certain is that the Air Force has already deferred 61 projects worth a total of $272.4 million across 18 bases in the United States and five overseas installations. On March 23, it announced that it would be forced to ground five bombers across its fleet of B-52, B-1 and B-2 aircraft this fall, and a long-term backlog for E-3 early warning aircraft maintenance would develop.
However, Wilson’s memo lays out slightly different consequences. The account for weapon system sustainment would be cut by $600 million in order to pay for disaster relief, and up to 17 aircraft could be grounded.
The service would stop full-scale fatigue testing for the B-1, which could prevent currently grounded B-1s from being returned to the flight line. The service would pause C-130J engine inductions, “drawing down our engine reserves and potentially creating readiness concerns in FY2020,” the memo states.
The cut to sustainment would also impact software updates for military satellites, delaying nine mission releases and eight information assurance releases, according to the memo.
Wilson’s memo predicted a shortfall of at least $600 million for FY19 to its Facilities, Sustainment, Restoration and Modernization account, which would result in the deferment of as many as 170 projects. However, Henderson on Tuesday said that the service could not find that many efforts to delay, raising questions about how that money will eventually be found.
The memo projected a $820 million cut to its flying hour program, which would result in fewer training hours for all but the most important warfighting squadrons.
“This may lead to grounding non-deploying squadrons, reducing flying to basic mission capable rates, curtailing non-readiness flying, and cancelling exercises and theater security package events in accordance with National Defense Strategy priorities,” Wilson wrote. “We would also reduce non-OCO refueling missions and stand down one class of our Weapons Instructor Course.”
Separate from the disaster relief problem, the Air Force is still working on getting permission to shift existing funding so that it can speed up weapons programs.
The Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared program, or Next-Gen OPIR, needs $623 million or else the launch of the first three missile warning satellites constellation could be delayed by two years, officials have warned. Wilson’s memo also stipulates that would add $300 million in cost to the program.
“Additionally, the inability to address $283 million in requirements to several other programs, including hypersonics, counter-small unmanned aerial systems, and Massive Ordnance Penetrator will delay the Air Force’s ability to deliver critical technology maturation and operational test,” she wrote.