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Budget uncertainty weighs on Air Force research efforts

Budget uncertainty is taking a toll on research and modernization efforts at the Air Force, leaders said.

In remarks in speeches and conversations on the sidelines of the Air Force's Jan. 18 Science and Technology 2030 summit in Washington, D.C., leaders worried about the prospect of a government shutdown and the problems that come with funding by continuing resolution.

Air Force Research Laboratory Commander Maj. Gen. William Cooley said he doesn't plan on initiating any significant projects until he completes the service's year-long comprehensive study into the science and technology directorate's strategy announced in September 2017. But living on temporary solutions is "wholly inefficient."

"There's a ripple-effect cost that's very difficult to measure, and it's the same as every other government agency that would have to do the start-stop kind of thing.… Budgeting and planning by continuing resolution makes it very challenging and inefficient, to be perfectly honest," Cooley said.

Speaking at an Air Force Association breakfast on Jan. 18, Air Force Undersecretary Matthew Donovan said that "on the modernization side, a long term CR would limit execution on the engineering, manufacturing and development phase on the B-21 [Raider]," the bomber jet, and could delay the Air Force's modernization efforts overall. Donovan said that for the B-21, the service would be limited to 2017 budget funding, which is 54 percent lower than the program's 2018 budget.

Research efforts could also potentially take a hit because funding is already anemic. During her speech at the science and technology summit, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said only 2 percent of the service's budget was allocated for research and development -- the vast majority of which is spent on tests and assessments rather than developing new capabilities.

"The sad reality is that less than 2 percent of the Air Force budget today is being used for research, development, test and evaluation," Wilson said, adding that the research budget standard for a peacetime Air Force was 25 percent so it could be "reconstituted" during wartime.

"That never came to be the case," she said. Instead, most of that 2 percent is "heavily weighted toward test and evaluation, and even in the research realm, a large part of our budget pays for research facilities."

Wilson also said that during times of sequester, the Air Force protects internal research but has lost connections with industry. It hopes to restore those ties through a series of innovation workshops this year as part of the service's strategy review, which will solicit feedback from academia and private industry.  The study is expected to conclude in September.

"While we seek to provide discoveries quickly, as leaders we must also understand that some basic research has implications far beyond what was initially envisioned," Wilson said. "And we have to continue to fund basic research even as we seek to rapidly apply technologies that may have been developed for other purposes."

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.

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