Nobody is breathing too easy, but the burst in defense spending as part of the federal budget bill signed by President Donald Trump could calm years of uncertainty at Wright-Patterson and perhaps bring more jobs to the state’s largest single-site employer.
“In the tightest budget years, bases had to cut back on things like cutting the grass and fixing the roof,” said Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president for federal programs.
“The pendulum swings back and forth and we don’t know how long the swing toward increased spending will last,” Gessel added. “It’s a safe prediction we will see strong defense spending in 2019 and beyond that depends on the perceived threats to our national security.”
In recent years, Wright-Patterson faced government shutdowns and thousands of civil service employee furloughs while budgets were pared under sequestration. Partisan divides in Washington failed to reach budget deals and lawmakers extended temporary funding under stopgap measures that capped spending at the prior fiscal year levels.
It’s not clear yet what Wright-Patt will receive in the budget, but analysts say the base’s major employers — the Air Force Material Command, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and the National Air and Space Intelligence Center — should get more work as a result of the billions in new spending for the nation’s defense over the next two years.
“Much of the budget increase is going to research and development and procurement, so Wright-Patt should see more activity from this down the road,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “It means more acquisition programs can start and ramp up.”
RELATED: Security concerns prompt Wright-Patt to close major gateway Spending on defense and Department of Energy nuclear weapons programs will reach $700 billion this fiscal year with a plan in the works to spend $716 billion in 2019.
The Air Force share of defense spending is $183.6 billion, including $25.6 billion across all research accounts, figures show. Also included in the $183.6 billion is nearly $25 billion for buying more planes, spacecraft, missiles and munitions and more than $49 billion for operations and maintenance.
“The Trump defense buildup will generate a surge of economic activity at the base and in the surrounding community,” said Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant.
RELATED: Air Force Marathon director leaves ‘Disjointed budget process’
Retired Col. Cassie B. Barlow, former installation commander at Wright-Patterson during a span of government shutdowns and furloughs, said the additional money will bring new military construction projects and help fill vacant jobs.
The passage of a budget was overdue after Congress imposed five temporary stop gap measures — called continuing resolutions — since September to keep the government running, she said.
“They tend to make for a very disjointed budget process because it’s tough to plan when you don’t know what’s coming next,” Barlow said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, whose district spans Wright-Patterson, said the latest spending measure gives the base “two years of certainty through 2019.”
Turner, a House Armed Services Committee member, said he expects future expansion and millions more dollars in construction and perhaps more jobs. Since 2002, the base has added nearly 10,000 jobs, Wright-Patterson figures show.
Thompson warned against anticipating big military hikes in the future. He expects defense spending to stabilize during the remainder of Trump’s term.
Brig. Gen. James D. Peccia, AFMC comptroller at Wright-Patterson, said the budget adds to planned buys of the F-35 fighter and KC-46 aerial refueling tanker, will allow for the purchase of new wings for the aging A-10 ground attack jet, and increases production of depleted munitions. It spends more on science and technology development, a light-attack aircraft experiment and on unfunded military construction throughout the Air Force.
“Now our team of program managers, logisticians, researchers, testers, contracting and financial management professionals have the difficult task of executing their programs to make every dollar count,” he said in a statement.
Thompson said the main thrust of the buildup is modernization of aging weapon systems, which has lagged since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“That means AFMC will need to preside over the simultaneous development of a dozen major weapon systems and many, many lesser ones,” he said.
“Air Force Materiel Command already receives nearly a third of the Air Force’s budget, and it will likely see a growing slice of the pie as modernization of aging weapon systems gets greater funding,” he said.
RELATED: ‘We’re not moving fast enough,’ Air Force leader says Beyond replacing aging weapon systems, Thompson said the Air Force wants to redefine how war will be waged in 2030 and beyond. “Warfighting ‘domains’ where the U.S. previously dominated, like space and the electromagnetic spectrum, are now being contested by countries such as China,” he added. “So the Air Force Research Lab will be expanding its inquiry into emerging technologies, from lasers to hypersonic weapons.”
With a renewed target on “great power competition,” NASIC will need to expand monitoring of Russian and Chinese military advancements to identify emerging threats, Thompson said.
Defense contracts in the Miami Valley
Defense contractors should gain work building NASIC intelligence capabilities and via “healthy research and development budgets” at AFRL, according to David A. Burke, president of the Dayton Area Defense Contractors Association.
More spending on the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker and the Air Force version of the F-35A stealth fighter also could bring more work to the region, Burke said.
Congress passing the budget so late in the fiscal year has consequences, however. A late start on new contracts causes delays in work and makes it harder to recruit and keep workers, he said.
“With low unemployment, delays and uncertainty in defense funding have only exacerbated challenges finding and retaining the necessary talent,” Burke said in an email. “So, delayed program starts have the most serious impact on staffing.”
More research spending should mean more opportunities for the Ohio Federal Research Network, a consortium of public and private research universities teamed with industry and federal labs in the state, to land more contracts, said Dennis Andersh, executive director of the Wright State Research Institute.
RELATED: Top AF leader to grads at Wright-Patt: ‘Our nation needs you desparately’ The consortium has targeted autonomy as a technological priority, he said.
“What we’ve tried to do is lift the ability for the state, including ourselves, to compete nationally for dollars,” he said. “We should be in a position to secure more of those dollars than we have in the past.”
At WSRI and Wright State University, defense-funded research is the biggest source of revenue. In fiscal year 2017, the Defense Department funded $21 million, which included AFRL contracts totaling $14.5 million. Wright State and WSRI have a total of 187 researchers.
At the University of Dayton, Air Force funding represents more than half the budget, which last year reached $135.9 million. The University of Dayton Research Institute accounts for nearly 90 percent of the total and has 475 researchers.
RELATED: Memphis Belle towed into Air Force museum for first time “Certainly, UDRI is going to compete for that funding, just like anyone else,” said John Leland, UDRI vice president of research and executive director. “We’re confident we’re going to fare well in that.”
‘A broken system’
Dan Grazier, a Project On Government Oversight defense watchdog, chided the amount of spending on “a broken system.”
“Congress simply threw more money at a broken system, so the American people can expect to see more of the same,” he said in an email. “They will see more over-priced and under-performing aircraft. They will see more wasted overhead spending. And they will see more money into bloated contracts that will, in part, be turned into future campaign contributions. With this bill, Congress has rewarded bad behavior which will only serve to encourage more bad behavior in the future.”
Grazier noted the plan adds 10 F-35As and three KC-46s aircraft above what the Air Force asked to receive. While the budget has prioritized more spending on aircraft, it put less of a hike into operations and maintenance to restore readiness, he said.
“If you just look at aircraft programs, Congress added $9.5 billion above the $34.5 (billion) figure requested by the Pentagon,” he wrote. “After years of being lectured about the looming ‘readiness crisis,’ you would think that Congress would have prioritized operations and maintenance.”
PHOTOS: How the Memphis Belle came back to life “The Pentagon needs to fundamentally reform the way it does business,” he added. “Based on this spending bill, Congress has not provided any incentive for doing so.”
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