Discussions of the defense department fiscal 2012 budget submission have focused on the top line and on the distribution of gain based Gates’ efficiency savings. Most commentators were disappointed by the lack of news given the Secretary’s January press conference. At $553 billion the overall budget request is in line with expectations as is the overall distribution of funds among the services and defense agencies.
But dig a little deeper through the documents and something remarkable is revealed. We are spending half a trillion on national defense not including the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan and buying very little for all that money. When you look at the total acquisition of major platforms by the services it is remarkable how little is being bought or even upgraded. In essence, a $553 defense budget for fiscal 2012 is buying a force that is going to continue to get smaller and older.
The problem is particularly acute in the Navy and Air Force which must recapitalize very expensive fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Take the U.S. Navy. The fiscal 2012 budget contains funds for 227 air vehicles of all types. This includes six F-35Bs for the Marines; 28 Super Hornets; 12 Growler electronic attack jets; 30 MV-22s; 26 AH-1Z or UH-1Y helicopters for the Marines; 18 Seahawk helicopters; and 12 Fire Scout unmanned helicopters.
The Air Force, the premier flying service, is buying only half the number of aircraft as the Navy. For fiscal 2012 the Air Force has budget for 114 total aircraft, including 48 Reaper UAVs; 19 F-35As; nine light attack aircraft; ten C-130Js in various configurations; nine C-27J Spartan cargo planes; five CV-22 Ospreys; and small numbers of numerous other types of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. In addition, the fiscal 2012 budget includes initial funding for the long-range family of systems, DoD speak for a new long-range bomber.
The new budget clearly sends the message that Air Force modernization is in trouble. It is a good thing that the program to build the conventional takeoff and landing variant of the F-35, the one the Air Force is acquiring, is in good shape. Otherwise the Air Force would not be buying any combat aircraft in fiscal 2012. Even so, the Navy is acquiring twice the number of combat aircraft as the Air Force.
Problems with development of the F-35 and additional testing requirements have caused delays to the program. As a consequence, it will take longer to reach an economical production rate, increasing overall costs for the F-35. The Air Force will be forced to spend additional funds to upgrade and maintain legacy fighters. In January, Secretary Gates announced that the Air Force would take the stopgap measure of equipping a number of F-15s with the advanced AESA radar.
During the Reagan buildup, the Air Force was acquiring F-16s at the rate of 240 a year. Now the best it can do is a handful of F-35s. With no more F-22s, this virtually guarantees that the size of the Air Force will shrink. Meanwhile, China and Russia are both busily developing their own fifth-generation stealth fighters.
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