WASHINGTON: Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee today that the White House had decided not to include aerial refueling as a capability for the next Air Force One fleet. Why? To save money.
President Donald Trump has apparently made the decision, reflected by this decision and the purchase of two little-used 747s from by a now-bankrupt Russian airline, that the ability of the commander in chief to survive and, if necessary, wage war doesn’t justify unconstrained expenditure.
The Air Force 2018 budget shows the successor to the VC-25 fleet will require nearly $3.2 billion between 2018 and 2022. Should Trump win reelection, he could fly in the one of the first planes to be refitted with the secure communication systems, special engines, defensive measures and other adaptations to the planes that make the plane much more than just a modified 747.
Sen. Tom Cotton made it clear to Dunford during this morning’s hearing that the White House decision may not stand, saying “we may need to revisit that decision.” Of course, the White House may be counting on this, giving them the ability to say they had done everything possible to save money on the Air Force One replacement, but Congress forced their hand. It’s an old fiscal trick.
In addition to Air Force One, Dunford told the SASC in his written questions that he supported the timely replacement of the E-4B National Airborne Operations Center, sometimes called “Looking Glass.” Calling it “the most survivable command center within the National Military Command System,” he said the current fleet “is facing availability issues due to aircraft age, and efforts are beginning to replace the aging fleet.”
Among other significant points Dunford conveyed to the Senate Armed Services Committee during and before his renomination hearing was that Congress’ inability to pass regular spending bills and the looming threat of another round of sequestration pose enormous threats to the U.S. military.
“The effects of sequestration would be disastrous for the Joint Force, as the required cuts are applied indiscriminately across the budget,” he said in written answers to committee questions. “In addition, since BCA (Budget Control Act) level funding does not provide enough money to sustain the current Joint Force,, the Joint Force’s competitive advantage against potential adversaries will continue to erode.”
There isn’t a great deal of clarity or hope about Congress taking the reins and changing paths. Matt Vallone, director of research & analysis at Avascent Analytics, noted in their weekly Political Report today that, “there remains no clear sense of what the White House, Congressional Republicans, and Congressional Democrats can all agree on in order to fund the government in FY 2018. While discussions among appropriators are probably ongoing, it is likely that no real progress on a deal will be made until closer to the deadline (Dec. 8).”
On top of that — or underlying it — the military must cope with an “aging logistics infrastructure (i.e. roads, rails, ports, bases), along with an increasingly brittle defense industrial base” which will “limit our ability to sustain a protracted or simultaneous conflict,” he wrote. Of course, the White House has launched a national study of the industrial base to identify weaknesses and strengths that need addressing. (Click here for our in-depth look at the industrial base problem).
Dunford also said he has ordered changes to our war plans for coping with Russia, China and other potential adversaries. Instead of the traditional Phase 0, Phase 1 etc of standard American military plans — which presume we are either at war or we are at peace — Dunford told the SASC that we now include something he called “adversarial competition short of armed conflict.” The Russian version of that is their use of Little Green Men and other aspects of hybrid warfare. As Sen. Bill Nelson noted, Vladimir Putin can’t beat American forces in any domain except one, cyber. Dunford noted the highly coordinated Russian use of cyber — including information operations using a wide variety of delivery systems — when he said the US was changing the campaign plans.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs also added a bit of meat to the very thin bones of the new US strategy in Afghanistan, saying in his written questions that “it places especial emphasis on influencing Pakistan to change its policies which are detrimental to US, NATO, Afghan, and even Pakistan’s own interests.” During the hearing he pointed specifically to Pakistan’s continuing willingness to grant sanctuary to the Taliban and the even more dangerous Haqqani Network.