The Air Force has been consistently underfunded because of the inclusion of “pass-through” funding in their budget. The pass-through funding for intelligence (“black”) programs masks Air Force budget shortfalls required for vital capabilities and modernization. Congress must make the budget change, because the Army, Navy and Marines benefit from a skewed budget.
One victim of underfunding the Air Force? Global Hawks. The proposed 2021 Defense budget plans to retire and divest 24 of 34 Global Hawks assigned to the Grand Forks AFB. This hits home. More later.
North Dakota’s two U.S. senators are in a position to help solve the pass-through funding problem. Sen. Kevin Cramer sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which authorizes the Defense budget. Sen. John Hoeven sits on the Senate Defense Appropriations Committe, which funds the budget. They care about defense. And they care about the Global Hawk mission that provides the essential intelligence on what our adversaries are doing to protect our military personnel. They are well respected by senate colleagues and the Air Force.
A myth persists inside and outside the Pentagon that the three services “equally share” the defense budget. Not true. In reality, the Air Force’s budget is significantly smaller, even if they lead every conflict because they must secure the air and space so the other services can do their job.
The Air Force’s budget includes $38 billion in pass-through funds – or 20% – that will never be seen, used or controlled by the Air Force. That is 6% of the total defense budget, twice as much as what it takes to operate Space Force, the newest service.
In other words, the pass-through budget is a barrier to truly aligning resources for the National Defense Strategy by artificially increasing the Air Force’s topline – making it look bigger than it really is. It also hinders congressional oversight and good governance, accountability and transparency.
As Congress expects a clean Pentagon audit, it should support every effort to increase transparency. Congress must have the ability to understand what is being spent and why. It is not the Air Force’s responsibility to foot the bill - if only on paper - for capabilities it does not directly control.
Much like the Navy and Marine budgets, it is expected that the Air Force and Space Force will soon have separate budgets. But that pesky pass-through money must be separated from the Air Force budget to ensure accurate understanding of actual resource allocation. No other service has a similar albatross weighing down its budget, weighing down perceptions about its budget, making the budget seem larger than it is. Adding to the challenge is the fact that most or all of the black programs and activities funded by the pass-through are classified, so no one can talk about them in media or public congressional testimony.
There is a bipartisan agreement to cap total funding for defense, and a mandate that the 2021 Defense budget start to meet the objectives of the National Defense Strategy. The Air Force budget is too small to pay for the necessary capabilities and capacity to deter or defeat the challenges from the major-power rivals China and Russia, as well as challenges posed by Iran, North Korea, and global terrorism.
“Regardless of where the next conflict occurs or which adversary it features, the Air Force will be at the forefront.” – National Defense Strategy Commission.
To fund new capabilities, the Air Force was asked to cut existing capabilities they still need, like cutting 24 of 34 Global Hawks. The Global Hawks are in high demand in the Middle East, Pacific, Europe and Africa to watch adversaries, and to protect our troops. This is a no-win choice.
Skeptics in Congress will want to see hard data proving there are benefits to divesting the Global Hawks. The budget says nothing about the space and ISR assets that might replace Global Hawks – which are still a requirement. And the Air Force will be called to defend why it is getting rid of these highly utilized assets instead of the aging U-2 spy planes. Equitable funding for the Air Force would save the Global Hawk capability.
The opportunity to clean up this long-standing pass-through practice seems possible. Let us hope that we have seen the last Air Force budget weighed down by the albatross of pass-through funding.
Bruce Gjovig is active with the Grand Forks Base Retention Impact Committee (BRIC) and was appointed to the USAF Civic Leaders Program by the USAF Chief of Staff and has served since January 2016.