The Republican takeover of the Senate will put some of the Air Force's harshest critics in new positions of power as the service looks to shape its future force structure.
Politics will play a huge role in deciding how much smaller the Air Force will get, which aircraft the Air Force will invest in or retire, and the type of future pay increase and benefits changes.
The Air Force's relationship with Congress has already been rocky, since early 2012 when service leaders proposed aircraft and personnel cuts aimed disproportionately at the Air National Guard. With a revised budget plan that spread the cuts more evenly among the active duty and Guard, tensions began to ease. But in February, when the Air Force sent to Congress a budget plan that would retire the A-10 attack jet and the U-2 spy plane fleets, Congress pushed back — again.
The standoff has put some personnel moves on hold, such as plans to transfer 800 A-10 maintainers to work on the F-35. Without those maintainers, the Air Force's fifth-generation strike fighter might not make it to the fleet by 2016 as planned. And Lt. Gen. Samuel Cox told Air Force Times in November that the service is waiting for Congress to pass a budget before deciding how many more airmen will have to leave the service, either voluntarily or involuntarily, during fiscal 2015.
The beginning of fiscal 2015 on Oct. 1 came and went without Congress passing a budget. Instead, Congress passed a continuing resolution funding the government at fiscal 2014 levels through Dec. 11 to avoid a government shutdown. The lame-duck Congress will decide within days whether to pass a budget or punt it to the new Congress that convenes after the first of the year.
Next year's budget process is shaping up to be tumultuous as the new Congress plans the Air Force's force structure, along with confirming a new defense secretary following Chuck Hagel's resignation on Nov. 24, growing the military's mission against the Islamic State group and expanding the Defense Department's battle against the Ebola virus.
"The Air Force is trying to pull off quite a feat here, in anyone's book," said Mark Gunzinger, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "Continuing to support operations in Afghanistan, now in Iraq, and elsewhere in the world, trying to modernize the force by investing in a new bomber, the F-35, a new trainer and a new tanker. And they are trying to support the combatant commanders who have an insatiable demand for [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities. That's a huge challenge."
New hope for the A-10
The next budget cycle will be a crucial one for the future of the Air Force fleet, and for the people in the service.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh have tried to convince a reticent Congress that the service needs to shed entire fleets of aircraft to allow for resources to be put toward new aircraft such as the F-35, the KC-46 refueling tanker and the long-range strike bomber.
Air Force leaders started talking publicly about retiring the A-10 and U-2 in the summer of 2013. But the inclusion of those plans in the fiscal 2014 budget, announced in early February, prompted an outcry from several key senators who will have even more influence come January.
Chief among those lawmakers is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expected to be the new chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee.
McCain said the Air Force has "misguided priorities" for its future force structure plans, adding that the fight over the Warthog's retirement is "far from over."
"The Air Force spent most of this year fighting Congress on retiring the A-10," he said Nov. 13. "Why they weren't focused on more important issues, I don't know."
In April, McCain quizzed Welsh and James, the top Air Force uniformed and civilian leaders, on the service's plan to replace the A-10 with other aircraft -- and on its point that B-1B Lancers had flown close-air support sorties in Afghanistan.
"That doesn't comport with any experience I've ever had, nor anyone I know has ever had," McCain told James. "See this is an example -- you're throwing the B-1 bomber as a close-air support weapon to replace the A-10. This is the reason why there is such incredible skepticism here in the Congress. ... You will not pursue the elimination of the finest close-air support weapons system in the world with answers like that. So I hope you will come up with something that is credible to those of us who have been engaged in this business for a long, long time."
The B-1 does fly close air support, Welsh responded.
"And it has been able to perform a limited — very extremely limited number of missions of close air support," McCain said. "General, please don't insult my intelligence."
McCain joined other senators, led by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., in blocking the A-10 plan.
Now, Ayotte and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., will also be in the majority on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"We're going to fight the Air Force, because this is budget driven," Graham said Nov. 13 of the A-10 plans.
But perhaps the biggest change coming to the service will be how the Air Force will divide its force structure between the active and reserve component. Following a tumultuous fiscal 2013 budget process, Congress directed the creation of the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, a blue-ribbon panel of former Defense Department officials, to study how the Air Force should structure itself in the future. The committee's report, released in January, called for the service to move more force structure into the Air National Guard. The Air Force has been on the clock since the report was released, with Congress directing the service to, by Feb. 2, 2015, report to the congressional defense committees on whether the commission's 42 recommendations can be institutionalized.
There has been some good news on this issue. In the two years since the battle over the fiscal 2013 budget bill, the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve and active duty have been able to improve how they work together, and that is expected to continue, Gunzinger said.
"I don't think it will be a sweeping shift," Gunzinger said. "The active and reserve components understand that modernizing the force and supporting current operations and frankly shaping a future vision to deal with the challenges we see emerging today is a total force effort."
The service has largely agreed with the commission on moving force structure across components, and congressional leadership has repeatedly pressed the service to beef up the Reserve and Guard at a cost to the active duty. The Air Force is reviewing its entire force to see how much capability can be moved to the Guard and Reserve, James has said.
"I would expect ... we will come up with additional missions, additional capabilities, that we would ask of our Guard and Reserve to assume in the future," James said at a State of the Air Force briefing last summer. "And so I see the future of our people program to be more reliant, not less reliant, on our National Guard and Reserve."
The shift toward the Guard is seen as a cost-saving effort by Congress and now Air Force leadership, at a time when cost savings are necessary. The service has repeatedly warned Congress that staying under Budget Control Act restrictions, and going toward sequestration-level funding in 2016 will mean a large drop in readiness.
"Obviously [it] is Congress' constitutional prerogative to rearrange priorities, but in doing so, please do not carve money out of our readiness accounts, as these priorities need to be paid for, because readiness is key, and we need to get those levels up," James said at the State of the Air Force briefing last summer. "And by the way, please Congress, lift sequestration in [fiscal] '16. Because if these difficult choices in FY 15 were troublesome, hold on to your hats, because it is going to get worse and even more difficult in FY 16."
Joint Strike Fighter
The F-35 program, the largest modernization priority for the Defense Department and expected to be a large focal point of future authorization bills in the Senate, has repeatedly come under fire from McCain. In April, McCain berated Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program executive officer, for cost overruns and a lack of responsibility. The program, an "imbroglio," has ballooned from $233 billion in 2001 to more than $391 billion in 2014, Bogdan said.
"At least we have to know the names of the people who made this kind of cockamamie agreement to start with because there were many of ... you forgot the fundamental [principle] that we adapted during the Reagan years — fly before you buy. ... If we had adhered to that principle, we probably wouldn't have found ourselves in the situation we're in," McCain said.
Bogdan told reporters in September he expects more of this sort of questioning under the new Senate leadership.
"I would imagine that I'm going to go speak with Sen. McCain more than I have in the past," he said. "I think Sen. McCain is doing exactly what the American people expect of him. And that is to be very, very discerning and critical if necessary if he sees things he doesn't like."
Through this uncertainty, Air Force leaders will need to improve how they work with Congress to justify their priorities, including informal discussions before a formal budget is submitted, said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow with CSBA.
"When a plan is presented as fait accompli in the budget request, that's when members of Congress push back harder," Harrison said. "Another important thing the Air Force can do is provide better evidence to support its positions. Congress' job is to check the service's homework, so showing your work — how you arrived at a decision — is important if you want to get partial credit."
James and Welsh, the top civilian and uniformed leaders, respectively, have vowed to patch up relations with Congress.
"We need to make this story very clear over time," Welsh said at the Air Force Association Air and Space Conference in September. "And I think that's our problem. We have to do that. That's not Congress' fault, and the Air Force message has to be clear and it has to be consistent."