Air Force Plans JSF Cuts

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Air Force Plans JSF Cuts

InsideDefense.com, Carlo Munoz and John T. Bennett, 8 september 2006 www.military.com target="_top"

The Air Force plans to reduce its expected purchase of Joint Strike Fighters by 72 aircraft in the service's proposed six-year spending plan due to skyrocketing costs in the Lightning II program, defense officials tell Inside the Air Force.
The proposed reduction, roughly the equivalent of one fighter wing, is part of the Air Force's fiscal year 2008 spending plan that the service submitted to the Office of the Secretary of Defense on Aug. 15. That budget blueprint spans fiscal years 2008 to 2013.
Defense Department officials anticipate acquiring just under 2,500 F-35s for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The Pentagon's eight international JSF partners are expected to purchase more than 770 of the futuristic fighters.
For the U.S. military, it is designed to replace a number of aging fighter platforms used for decades by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
However, if the service's purchasing plan is adopted by OSD officials and folded into the president's FY-08 defense budget request sent to Congress in February, it would allow the Air Force to adhere to current F-35 development and production schedules -- but with 72 fewer planes.
Such a move also would offset staggering cost increases that came to light earlier this year, officials noted. Service officials want to use the dollars that would have been spent to buy the 72 fighters to pay the unexpected bills that triggered a substantial cost spike from last year.
The total price tag for the tri-service Joint Strike Fighter program shot up by nearly $19 billion during a four-month period in 2005, according to a Pentagon selected acquisition report (SAR) released April 7 after it was sent to Congress.
Prior to that significant increase, overall JSF cost growth set against the program's 2002 baseline estimates came in at $75 billion over a three-year span. 'Base year' cost estimates for the JSF totaled just over $202 billion in 2002, states the April 7 report.
With that trend of cost spikes, the F-35's $276 billion price tag has made it one of the most expensive defense acquisition efforts in Pentagon history, according to defense officials and analysts.
The increase also placed the JSF program among the 15 platforms listed in the April SAR that DOD says breached the Nunn-McCurdy statute during the September through December 2005 time frame. The Nunn-McCurdy Act places caps on single-unit cost growth for all major DOD acquisition programs, notes the April 7 report.
Using dollars previously intended to buy a wing of JSFs to pay for the 2005 cost increase, however, is not a sign that Air Force officials are re-thinking their place in the tri-service, international fighter effort, one senior service official tells ITAF.
Brig. Gen Charles Lyon, deputy director of programs in the office of the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs, characterized the change as more of a 'refinement' than a deviation from the service's F-35 plans.
'We are not making any change that would push things to the right or accelerate them to the left. We are staying the course on the JSF,' Lyon said during a Sept. 6 interview at the Pentagon. "We just have got to have it to stay a viable Air Force for years to come, and we know that."
Lyons declined to discuss the specifics of the service's POM submission, saying that doing so would taint the Pentagon's budget process.
The service's proposal to cut its overall JSF buy comes only weeks after Navy and Marine Corps officials submitted to Pentagon officials an FY-08 spending plan that proposes a one-year delay in fielding the fighter, InsideDefense.com reported on Aug. 18.
If approved by OSD, the Navy-USMC plan would delay fielding the first Marine Corps F-35 squadron from 2010 to 2012, while also pushing acquisition of 35 additional Air Force and Navy Joint Strike Fighters beyond 2013, according to sources contacted by InsideDefense.com. Those sources said the move would free up nearly $1 billion across Navy and Marine Corps coffers.
OSD could reject the naval service' proposal, alter it or adopt it outright as they craft a military-wide six-year spending plan over the next several months. For his part, Lyon said the Air Force did not follow the Navy-Marine Corps plan in its budget submission. Still, if adopted by OSD, the kind of delay outlined in the Navy-Marine Corps POM would undoubtedly create a 'ripple wave' effect on the entire program.
"Perturbations come from all different areas, they are just some things that are a fact of life and happen," Lyon told ITAF. "What we will do is we will be a partner with the Navy and the Marine Corps here in the Department of Defense to keep this program on track and keep it solid."
If a delay in fielding the F-35 is enacted, such a move would force the air service to recalibrate its ambitious aircraft retirement plan, Lyon said. He added that a one-year delay in fielding the next-generation fighter would force his service to keep more aging legacy fighters in the air longer than under existing plans. "We would have to re-look it, we would have to re-look the entire calculus of our retirement plan and our basing plan and the impact on pilot production," the one-star told ITAF. "There is a huge ripple effect there if we delay the genesis of the F-35 into the Air Force."
The prospect of further extending the life of some aging fighters that are on 'a glide path' toward retirement has some top brass concerned. The service's aircraft fleet has an average age of 24 years. For service officials, operating those platforms at full levels brings into question whether or not the aircraft can perform under such demands, Lyon said.
"This is the situation that we are in [because] we had a procurement holiday in the 1990s' and legacy aircraft just got 'older and older,' he said. "Now there are some that say that is just fine, that an aging fleet is OK, but we are just really nervous about it."
Even if OSD and Congress enact all of the air service's desired retirement and procurement plans each year until the FY-13 budget cycle, the average age of the fleet would still be at 30 years at that time, Lyon said.
Budgetary pressures facing the entire federal government, however, make buying enough new aircraft between now and FY-13 to bring that number down unlikely, according to defense officials and Pentagon observers.
"We had the luxury during the early part of the Cold War -- the 1950s to 1960s -- to acquire a lot of aircraft in a very short period of time," he said. "We do not have that luxury as a nation now."

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