November 3, 2009
Lawmakers Announce Caucus To Support Air Force’s Strategic Programs
By Frank Oliveri, CQ Staff
Lawmakers worried that the Air Force’s strategic missions are being shortchanged by the Pentagon are forming a bipartisan caucus aimed at supporting funding for a next-generation bomber program.
Del. Madeleine Z. Bordallo, D-Guam, and Rep. John Fleming, R-La., sent a letter to the House Administration Committee on Oct. 29 announcing their intention to co-chair the Long Range Strike Caucus. The group would push for the classified next-generation strategic bomber, as well as cruise missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear weapons technology and facilities.
Fleming and congressional aides said the caucus’ formation was necessitated by concerns that the Air Force has lost the ability to effectively fight for itself within the Defense Department as a result of setbacks it has suffered in recent years. They say they are concerned that the Air Force likely will be marked for deep cuts in the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) — a study of strategy, assets and organization to be released in early 2010 — and over the next five-year budget cycle.
“The Air Force has been marginalized,” one senior Republican aide said. “We feel like we have to pick up the torch and be the chief advocate because we are not seeing that from the Air Force. They are pretty weak right now.”
The aide pointed to the firing Friday of a 5th Bomb Wing commander at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota; an Air Force statement cited an “inability to foster a culture of excellence, a lack of focus on the strategic mission during his command and substandard performance during several nuclear surety inspections.” At least one squadron was found “not ready” to perform its nuclear mission during a surprise checkup.
In June 2008, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley and Secretary Michael W. Wynne were forced to resign because of widespread problems handling nuclear weapons.
And Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has questioned the continued need to maintain the nuclear weapons “triad” — bombers, ICBMs and sea-based missiles — on which deterrence has rested for more than five decades.
Lawmakers and aides say these kinds of challenges undercut Air Force leaders’ relevance in the budget process.
Fleming, a freshman whose 4th District is the home of Barksdale Air Force Base, the 2nd Bomb Wing and the Air Force Global Strike Command, said the B-52s in his district are as old as the grandfathers of some of the bomber pilots flying them.
That might be an exaggeration for effect — the oldest B-52s entered the fleet in 1955 — though it’s possible the grandfathers of today’s pilots could have flown them.
In any case, Fleming said, “We need to deal with this issue.”
The Obama administration this year attempted to defer development of the next-generation bomber, pending the completion of the QDR and the Nuclear Posture Review later this year in light of strategic arms control negotiations with Russia.
Congressional aides indicated that funding for the next-generation bomber likely would be included in the fiscal 2010 Defense appropriations bill (HR 3326), the final version of which is now being worked out by negotiators.
The fiscal 2010 defense authorization law (PL 111-84) states that it is U.S. policy “to support the development of next-generation bomber technologies.”
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in May, Gates said one key reason he ordered a reassessment of the bomber program was to determine whether it would need a pilot. He said because it was still a relatively inexpensive, low-level development effort, cost was not a factor in deferring the program.
The Air Force originally planned to field the bomber — envisioned as a subsonic, stealthy, medium-range, manned aircraft — using existing “off-the-shelf” technologies by 2018.The Air Force has 180 strategic bombers — B-2s, B-1s and B-52s — of which 129 are combat ready, according to a Congressional Research Service report from September.
A senior Democratic aide working on the caucus said that while the next-generation bomber is high on the priority list, the group’s concerns range beyond that leg of the triad.
The aide pointed to the military’s aging ICBMs, air-launched cruise missiles, nuclear warheads and the systems that support them as also being in need of updating.
Fleming said he and Bordallo — whose island is home to Anderson Air Force Base — are concerned the triad could falter without strong backing from Capitol Hill.
But the decades-old notion of the triad being necessary to the defense of the country might also be losing steam at the Pentagon.
Gates suggested in his May testimony that new arms control deals with Russia could eliminate the need for the nuclear triad, “depending on the number . . . of nuclear weapons that we need.”