U.S. Budget Stalemate Threatens B-21 Bomber Ramp-up

 - January 24, 2018, 5:41 PM

The continuing resolution (CR) that re-opened the U.S. government on January 23 after a three-day shutdown brings little relief to military leaders counting on budget increases to meet both readiness and to keep large programs, notably the Northrop Grumman B-21, on schedule.

The CR, the fourth of Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, funds the government at FY17 levels through February 8 while lawmakers continue to debate longer-term budgets for agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). More ominously, it suggests a precedent that will lock DOD—and the rest of the government—into current budget levels through additional CRs.

"The farther along you go into the fiscal year with these short-term CRs, the more likely a long-term full-year CR becomes, and that's not a good thing for us," said U.S. Air Force (USAF) undersecretary Matthew Donovan. "It will have damaging impact on readiness and modernization."

Among the programs that would be hit hardest: the B-21 Raider long-range stealth bomber. DOD's $639 billion FY18 budget request includes $2 billion for the B-21, a 35 percent increase over FY17's $1.3 billion level. The program completed preliminary design review last year and is adding staff and developing engineering drawings. The DOD, citing national security, has released few other details on what the $2 billion would go toward. "You have to balance [transparency] with not letting your adversaries know your capabilities," Donovan said.

But, he added, a lack of a funding boost in FY18 would affect the program's mid-2020s target for initial operating capability. 

"If we're not able to ramp up on our schedule for our acquisition program baseline, then of course it's going to have an impact," he said, adding that FY19 numbers due out next month will reflect the planned increase in activity. "I'm not going to tell you what the [budget] number is, but you can expect that it's going to increase as we build up this program."

The CRs are having near-term ramifications as well, Donovan noted. The USAF, which requested a FY18 top-line budget of $132.4 billion, set a target of having 325,000 airmen in FY18, up from 321,000 in FY17. The current-year budget request also adds $2.7 billion in operation and maintenance funding to boost depot maintenance and, ultimately, readiness.

"The end result: [CRs] will restrict training opportunities and slow our readiness improvement," Donovan said, adding that having sufficient manpower "is our number-one readiness issue."