The strategic guidance released last week affirmed one, and only one, hardware investment by name: the strategic bomber. (See .pdf page 11.) That’s a clear indication of priority – but why?
Despite being just a year old, this isn’t the first head-scratcher on its record. Last July Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), ranking member of the House Appropriations committee, offered this explanation for the panel’s decision to fund the newly-requested bomber at 51% above the Pentagon’s budget submission ($297 million vice $197 million):
Our committee held hearings with the Air Force and found, from a lot of dialogue with the three companies that are competing, that we might be able to accelerate this bomber replacement program if we could get an additional $100 million.
Conspicuously unaddressed, of course, was a rationale for why we need a bomber replacement program at all. Yet the House’s plus-up won the day in conference, with the manager’s report explaining the change in two words: “Program Increase.” (See .pdf page 249.) And the strategic guidance offered no better clues, simply binning the jet as part of our program to overcome anti-access/area-denial tactics.
These are no mean oversights. OMB terminated a bomber program in FY10 precisely because “the current fleet is performing well… [and] current aircraft will be able to meet the threats expected in the foreseeable future.”
A random and single fiscal allusion in a studiously non-budgetary strategy document? A mysterious 51% increase? Taken separately, it’d sound like the regular hem-and-haw of political posturing – especially when the program in question got cut just two years ago. But it isn’t. The program not only is surviving, it beat the spread at both major decision points.
Clearly some motivation is propelling the bomber program forward even in this austere budget environment. Given OMB’s FY10 position, that motivation probably isn’t just the future strategic environment. But, absent a justification that rebuts OMB, debate about a new bomber is likely to sharpen. More to follow – will we finally get a real defense of this program in Secretary Panetta’s budget briefing on January 26th?