Delayed Spending Bill Could Hurt F-15EX, Major Fighter Jet Upgrades

F-15EX concept art (via Boeing)
F-15EX concept art (via Boeing)

Many Air Force programs -- including the new F-15EX fighter, enhanced F-22 Raptor sensors, maintenance modifications to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and an effort to build a surplus of precision-guided missiles and bombs -- are under immediate threat if Congress fails to pass a formal appropriations bill soon, according to the service's top general.

If the temporary spending bill, known as a continuing resolution or CR, is prolonged by as little as six months, the impasse will negatively affect roughly 145 projects that are already in development or slated to be awarded soon, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said Wednesday.

"It's truly damaging," he said during an Air Force Association breakfast in Washington, D.C., providing a document to attendees. Air Force Magazine was first to report on the list of endangered projects last month.

The Air Force has crunched the numbers: If Congress freezes funding at last year's levels for six months, programs like the F-15EX -- currently estimated at $1.1 billion for development and production -- will take a hit.

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This "may negatively impact Boeing's aggressive pricing," according to the document, citing the plane's manufacturer. "[This] also means operating and sustaining aging F-15C [Eagle] fleet longer than planned, incurring added extensive maintenance actions due to structural health issues."

The Air Force would also have to forgo buying an additional 1,000 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) tail kits, 99 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and 665 Small Diameter Bomb II munitions. And it would have to postpone correcting F-35A Lightning II blade seal composite parts, among other deficiencies, currently affecting 31% of the fleet and reducing readiness rates.

Should the CR extend for a year, concerns grow dire, Goldfein said.

According to the list, the Air Force would need to withhold $466 million in sustainment and modernization funding for natural disaster recovery efforts at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, and Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, as well as emergency funding the service expects to receive in the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

And the service's pilot shortage could grow if $123 million is cut from undergraduate flight training, the document states.

"Reductions would cut contractor instructor pilots, keep the new maintenance training center from opening, and delay trainer fleet maintenance," it says.

Many programs would eventually become untenable due to budget constraints, Goldfein said.

He explained that Air Force officials often give a stringent timetable for defense companies producing weapons and equipment and must be as transparent as possible with them, given that the CR could stifle an upcoming production or delivery.

"I have to go to them and say, 'Hey, I don't know exactly how many of these weapons I'm going to buy from you this year because I can't do any new start [projects]. And I know if I ever get the money, I'm going to buy this amount of weapons, so I want you to keep this very sophisticated workforce with high-level security clearances … and I only have six months to get a year's worth of munitions, so I need you to be ready,'' Goldfein said.

It's a daunting task that most companies turn away from. Or they might increase the price on the next batch of equipment to meet the demand, the general said.

Based on discussions he's had with Pentagon leadership and lawmakers, Goldfein said fiscal 2021 may be one of the last budgets to give the military the funding surplus it needs to continue rebuilding after sequestration and plan for future operations.

Goldfein said he's working with acquisition officials to set the "right foundation" for the future no matter what budget the service ends up with. It isn't necessarily about buying more equipment for the sake of stocking up inventories, but making its use worthwhile, he said.

"[The budget] may go flat after that or it may start coming down," Goldfein said. "So how do you achieve irreversible momentum if you have only one good year left? [We need] to set this foundation."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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