Wild blue spending

This article first appeared as a Comment in the 4 March issue of Flight International

The target in 2010 was stopping production of the Lockheed Martin F-22. A year later, the goal was to halt years of unsolicited funding for the Boeing C-17 and the General Electric F120 alternate engine for the Lockheed F-35 fighter. An election year in 2012 offered a reprieve from high-profile and unpopular budget cutting, but the axe came back out in 2013, with proposals to mothball 11 fighter squadrons and retire hundreds of airlifters, tankers and reconnaissance aircraft.
It must be that time of year again.
The Department of Defense has previewed cuts to be proposed to a usually sceptical Congress in March, and so begins a 10-month ritual in Washington DC. It involves parochial lawmakers seeking to salvage jobs and pet causes, lobbyists scrounging billion-dollar favours for large corporate clients and military leaders just hoping the result in November or December loosely resembles the budget proposal submitted in February.
The targets of the Pentagon’s budget-cutting this year may seem diverse, but they share a number of common themes. Three platforms – the Lockheed Martin U-2S, the Fairchild Republic A-10 and the Bell Helicopter OH-58D Kiowa Warrior – are proposed for early retirement. In operations, they perform high-altitude reconnaissance, close air support and armed aerial scouting.
While not similar operationally, they have a common industrial trait; preserving them neither creates nor retains highly coveted aircraft assembly jobs in local congressional districts, but retiring them does provide that opportunity for the aircraft that assume their functions (albeit with less efficiency).
While highly capable at one or two critical functions, the three types can hardly be called “multi-role”. In a bureaucratic environment fraught with hard budget decisions, that makes them vulnerable to culling.
Finally, all three types are vulnerable in all but the most permissive operational environments.
Second-guessing budget decisions makes easy sport, especially in lean times when spending is shrinking. Sometimes, there are no good options, and the best approach is to choose among the least offensive alternatives. For the US military, this is one of those times.
Congress and the lobbyists will still have their say. It took the DoD several years of trying to halt domestic orders for the F-22, C-17 and F120 engine, but it eventually succeeded. All of those programmes involved active production lines. Axing three types well past their industrial prime will be easier.

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