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.
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.
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."
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.
"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."
Pay and benefits
Issues with pay and benefits will continue to come up in the future defense bills, especially if Congress doesn't break through a standstill in the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that has been in place since before the Thanksgiving recess.
The bill includes options that would limit the military pay raise to 1 percent, reduce payments for Basic Allowance for Housing and increase co-pays for pharmaceuticals through Tricare. A proposed amendment in the House would include a 1.8 percent basic pay raise, while the Senate and White House prefer 1 percent. However, an open-amendment debate is unlikely with the time remaining, said outgoing Senate Armed Services Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
Leadership in both the House and Senate Armed Services committees have said the top priority is that something passes, including at least routine pay renewals.
On Nov. 24, the Air Force Sergeants Association sent a letter to its members encouraging them to contact Congress and urge action on the bill and address the "unfairness of the proposals."
"While it is understandable that extraordinary measures must be taken during a time of national fiscal crisis, it should be noted that inadequate funding of our military has brought us to this point," AFSA CEO Rob Frank said in the statement. "Congress still needs to address sequestration, but military members should not be penalized for their inaction."
Joint Strike Fighter
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."