Issue Briefs

The U.S. Air Force’s Latest Budget Is Shrouded In Secrecy

By Loren Thompson

February 13th, 2020

When the U.S. armed forces revealed their proposed fiscal 2021 budgets on Monday at the Pentagon, it became clear that the Department of the Air Force has a problem the other military departments do not. Much of what it wants to do with $63 billion sought for new weapons and warfighting technology is secret.

That applies doubly to the newly-minted Space Force, which operates within the Department of the Air Force. There are literally hundreds of line items in the proposed budget that are classified, with the largest share consisting of recently begun efforts to provide increased awareness, protection and connectivity in space.

The secrecy doesn’t just obscure the status of “black” programs like the next-generation B-21 bomber. In some cases, the budget doesn’t even acknowledge that key programs exist. Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein has been briefing select members of Congress on how the Air Forces proposes to modernize for future great power conflict, but those briefings are generally “special access,” meaning secret, too.

Secrecy is not generally a problem in terms of program execution. Classified programs sometimes unfold more smoothly because they are subject to less oversight or outside criticism. The problem is how to explain to lawmakers why you want to retire a cherished legacy system when you can’t disclose what is taking its place.

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The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the author.

Loren B. Thompson is a Senior Adviser at GPI, Chief Operating Officer of the non-profit Lexington Institute and Chief Executive Officer of Source Associates, a for-profit consultancy. Prior to holding his present positions, he was Deputy Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and taught graduate-level courses in strategy, technology and media affairs at Georgetown. He has also taught at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Mr. Thompson holds doctoral and masters degrees in government from Georgetown University and a bachelor of science degree in political science from Northeastern University.