If you voted for President Biden in hopes of seeing defense spending reduced, you’re going to be disappointed with his 2024 budget.
The president’s budget plan calls for a record $835 billion in defense spending, including modern-day highs of $170 billion for weapons procurement and $145 billion for research and development.
Some will go to replace weapons stock depleted by our support of Ukraine in its war with Russia. But much of the new weapons and research budgets will be focused on countering China, whom the military considers our most formidable and likely adversary in coming years.
Given the circumstances — war in Ukraine, uncertainty in the South China Sea, trouble elsewhere — there is no appetite and few champions for cutting defense spending.
The most costly procurement program in the history of the world — the F-35 — will continue to roll along, with the military increasing last year’s order to 80 planes and ordering 83 more for the coming year. The U.S. is designing new intercontinental ballistic missiles, and more than $4 billion will go to research and development on that project. The Navy and Air Force are also researching long-range air munitions for a battle with China.
With the money spigot necessarily open, it’s more important than ever to identify ways to contain costs. For instance, the Air Force is also working to modernize its tankers — the giant planes that refuel fighter jets and other aircraft in midair. The military is worried the tankers themselves will be targeted, and it is moving to modernize the fleet.
The question those working on the next-generation air refueling system, or NGAS, is whether to move from the aircraft now in frequent use — the KC-46 Pegasus — to an interim bridge tanker or keep using the KC-46 until the 2040s, when the next-generation KC-Z is ready.
The concerns about survivability are deep-seated within the Air Force, and a move to an interim craft might help in that regard.
But the Air Force is already moving up the date for the next-generation tanker well into the 2030s, making an interim plane less critical. Also, the KC-46 Pegasus is a known quantity, already serving more than 95% of U.S. military aircraft. Late last year, it demonstrated its capabilities by flying a 16-hour, 16,000-mile nonstop trip.
It can land in tight spots, unlike the proposed interim plane. Its procurement and operation costs have come in one-sixth to one-fifth below projections. And its users love it.
Brig. Gen. Ryan Samuelson, who leads the team redesigning Air Force tankers, said the fleet now meets combat requirements around the world, “but the KC-46 is a game-changer in its ability to transmit and exchange data between networks, arming warfighters with real-time battlefield awareness — extending the join forces reach, flexibility and endurance capabilities.”
The KC-46A is also entirely in the United States, so it does not depend on foreign suppliers for parts or the final product. The interim plane would be built by a consortium that includes Airbus, the France-based airplane maker.
Its design team has also vowed to work closely with the Department of Defense on upgrades that can be made now to the KC-46A and have agreed to a fixed-cost contract, meaning any overruns or delays are paid for by the supplier.
This is a good example of one program that can provide some savings to offset the increase in spending proposed by the Biden administration, and it is likely to be one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement on a spending plan for next year.
Saving money on tankers is not going to solve the big-picture problem of a government spending far more than it takes in, but it is a good example of how the Pentagon can play a role in getting closer to balance. It also makes sense to insource more defense production to prevent supply chain problems and a reliance on a Europe-based company to provide U.S. defense capabilities.
The Pentagon seems sold on this sensible cost-saving idea. The big question is whether Congress will join in and provide some leadership in crafting a spending package that provides some cost savings in a budget that will be expanded.
• Brian McNicoll, a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Virginia, is a former senior writer for The Heritage Foundation and former director of communications for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.