Proposed U.S. defense budget changes course for U.S. military

Defense Secretary Gates signals end for F-22, but calls for expedited production of F-35s and UAVs.

As HPC prepared to go to press, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was recommending a broad overhaul in defense acquisition strategy to lawmakers on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The proposed FY2010 Pentagon budget, unveiled April 6, bears both good and bad news for defense contractors and their suppliers in the composites industry.

Chief among the bad news was Gate’s recommendation to cease production of the F-22 jet at 187 aircraft, just four more than the 183 already in service (the remaining four will come out of 2009 supplemental war funds). Despite a U.S. Air Force request for 60 more planes, Gates said the F-22 — the country’s most expensive fighter plane, endowed with significant composite components — was out of touch with the “smaller, lower-tech battlefields the military is facing now and expects in coming years.” Also on the chopping block is the new but already overbudget VH-71 presidential helicopter, which made its maiden flight in September 2008. The VH-71 program, based on the EH101 helicopter developed by AgustaWestland (Farnborough, Hampshire, U.K.), was to produce a fleet of 23 helicopters at an estimated $6.1 billion, but since its inception, the program’s cost has doubled. Lockheed Martin (Bethesda, Md.) manages both programs and reports that production halts would result in the loss of nearly 100,000 jobs. Other cutbacks would include elements of the U.S. Army’s $159 million Future Combat Systems (FCS) program, which is overseen by The Boeing Co. (Chicago, Ill.). Gates judged FCS inadequate, as conceived, in light of the “lessons of counterinsurgency and close-quarters combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Gates intends to re-evaluate FCS requirements and technology and relaunch the program with a competitive bidding process. Further cuts include a planned U.S. Air Force transport plane and a proposed Air Force Search and Rescue helicopter, as well as a missile defense shield program and the TSAT communications satellite.

At the top of the “good news” column are the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet and unmanned aircraft. Gates urged accelerated production of the less-expensive next-generation F-35, now ramping up to rate on three variants designed, respectively, for the U.S. Navy, Army and Air Force. Gates proposed that the government buy 30 F-35s in 2010 — twice the number that will be built this year. Gates further pledged to see 513 F-35s built over the five-year defense plan, and ultimately intends to acquire a total of 2,443 F-35 aircraft. Additionally, $2 billion is on the spending docket for, among other items, 50 additional Reaper and Predator UAV drones (through FY2011) because of the effective role they have played in supporting soldiers in ongoing counterinsurgency campaigns (see HPC’s UAV market outlook in this issue, on p. 36). Gates also proposed to “maintain the KC-X aerial refueling tanker schedule and funding with the intent to solicit bids this summer.”

Finally, Gates, in line with President Barack Obama’s call for scrapping the “cost-plus” method of funding defense programs, called for “acquisition and contract reform” characterized by suspension of programs that “significantly exceed their budget or which spend limited tax dollars to buy more capability than the nation needs.” Approved programs, he says, must use technology that is deemed “adequately mature to allow the department to successfully execute the programs” — a statement some say could deter integration of advanced materials. Gates also wants to “guard against so-called requirements creep, validate the maturity of technology at milestones, fund programs to independent cost estimates and demand stricter contract terms and conditions.”