Watch congressional hearings into the Pentagon’s fiscal 2016 budget, and it would seem the sky is falling on the U.S.’s ability to defend itself as the Defense Department tries to stave off spending caps that would force cuts across its programs.

The return of congressional budget caps would limit the Pentagon’s spending to $499 billion and require just over $35 billion—about 6.5%—to be cut from the president’s defense budget request for 2016. So in absolute and relative terms the sky is far from falling on national security, though in some areas it does look shaky.

While attention has been grabbed by service attempts to preserve funds for readiness and modernization in the face of budget reductions, by sacrificing whole fleets of aircraft—Air Force close-air-support A-10s and Army OH-58D armed scouts among them—the real damage may not be felt for decades, and be self-inflicted through efforts to protect existing programs.

Attempts to balance the national budget by trimming public spending come as the U.S. military raises its head above the parapet of two wars and begins to think about the future, and how to sharpen its eroding edge over potential adversaries. The real threat of sequestration is that the Pentagon will let the cuts fall on embryonic programs that could deliver that military advantage, but not for a decade or two.

Equally important, it is those same science and technology (S&T) programs that will sustain industry’s ability to develop and produce new weapon systems in the 2020s and ’30s. Across the services there are technology demonstrations planned or underway to lay the foundations for future systems. Cuts to those demos or delays to follow-on programs put industry’s design and integration capabilities at risk.

Whether it is next-generation fighters and hypersonic strike weapons for the Air Force, high-speed rotorcraft and high-energy lasers for the Army, or electromagnetic railguns and autonomous cargo helicopters for the Navy, the inconvenient truth is that a return to budget caps under sequestration would deal disproportionately heavy blows to S&T programs industry needs now so it can deliver later.

Arguably the most important of those, given the Pentagon’s experience with immature technology and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, is the Aerospace Innovation Initiative (AII) to get a head start on integrating and demonstrating airframes and engines for the next generation of “air-dominance” fighters to enter service beyond 2030.

Planned to begin in 2016, the initiative has two elements: AII-X to fly two X-plane fighter prototypes, one for the Air Force and one for the Navy; and the Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP) to ground-test two flight-size variable-cycle fighter engines offering 25% lower specific fuel consumption.

“Both AII-X and AETP would end under sequestration,” Alan Shaffer, principal deputy assistant defense secretary for research and engineering, told a congressional hearing in March. “This would leave the Defense Department with no significant long-term research into the next generation of air capability.” 

After the controversial cancellation of an alternative engine for the F-35, funding two powerplants under AETP, Shaffer said, “will help sustain a healthy industrial base . . . to meet development and production needs for legacy and future platforms.” Cancellation of the AII would lead to layoffs, “and once we lose aerospace engineers in the aircraft and turbine engine industries, they do not come back.”

The Army is in a similar situation. High-speed rotorcraft demonstrators will be flown in 2017 by Bell and Sikorsky/Boeing (shown). But if the follow-on Future Vertical Lift Medium program to replace the UH-60 Black Hawk and AH-64 Apache beginning in the mid-2030s is delayed, the Army has warned, industry will lose design capability.

At the March hearing, Shaffer listed other key demos at risk of cuts or delays to follow-on development and production programs. These include the Air Force’s High-Speed Strike Weapon, to fly both Mach 6 air-breathing-scramjet hypersonic and Mach 9+ tactical boost-glide missiles by 2019.

For the Navy, it includes the at-sea trials in 2019 of an automated electromagnetic railgun capable of firing guided hypervelocity projectiles 110-nm at 10 rounds/min., and the demo in 2016 of a 100-150-kw solid-state laser self-defense weapon capable of long-term deployment on a destroyer.

Even before any spending caps, the Pentagon’s 2016 request for S&T is down 8% from 2011 and down 20% from 2009 for R&D. “The R&D budget is variable, but the cost of R&D is not. If the budget goes down, delivery will be impacted,” Shaffer warned. And the cost of not investing in research and technology now is certain to be high when it is finally counted in a decade or two.