Pentagon budget request doubles-down on long range strike

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The US military has proposed to jump-start development of new land- and sea-based bombers in the fiscal year 2012 budget by squeezing savings within a stagnant long-term spending plan.

Shifting gears from irregular to conventional threats, the FY2012 budget proposal unveiled on 14 February would accelerate the fielding of a next generation bomber for the air force to the mid 2020s and an unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) system for the navy to 2018.

As two centrepieces of the Pentagon's $671 billion budget request, both programmes reflect the US military's current interest in long-range, stealthy platforms with a flexible mix of weapons and sensor payloads. But each is coming of age amidst the most austere budget environment since the mid-1990s, with a newly-elected majority in the House of Representatives calling for deep, albeit arbitrary, defence spending cuts.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticised such proposals as "increasingly distant from strategic and operational reality - distant, in other words, from the real world".

Gates framed the Pentagon's budget request as an attempt to balance fiscal and strategic needs. After spending the last two years slashing dozens of weapons programmes, including Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptor and the VH-71 presidential helicopter, the new request seeks to add new capabilities aimed at future threats.

The spending plan, for example, also would add money to arm the navy's Boeing EA-18Gs and the Marine Corps' Northrop Grumman EA-6Bs with a next generation jammer by the end of the decade, replacing the ALQ-99.

Such additions may not come at the expense of the military's recent emphasis on irregular warfare. Annual production slots at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' factory for unmanned aircraft systems would be sold-out, with orders for 48 MQ-9 Reapers for the air force and 36 MQ-1C Gray Eagles for the army.

The air force also would buy the first nine light attack and armed reconnaissance trainers, upgrade the L-3 Communications MC-12 Liberty fleet and award a new contract for a light mobility aircraft.

The US military's top-line budget next year would increase by about 1.5% compared to the requested levels for FY2011, so new additions mostly come at the expense of either existing weapons or overhead charges.

Lockheed's F-35 would receive $9.7 billion in FY2012, which allows production for the air force's F-35A and navy's F-35C variant to remain on track. With the F-35B short take-off and vertical landing variant placed on a two-year probation, the Marine Corps will buy 41 fewer aircraft over the next five years.

Some of the savings from the slowdown will be reinvested to avoid further delays for the F-35's software development and flight tests. The remaining savings will be spent on acquiring 41 F/A-18 Super Hornets for the navy.

Both the air force and navy, however, are embarking on the next generation of military strike aircraft.

If the FY2012 budget is approved, the air force will invest $2 billion more in the next generation bomber account, raising the five-year total to $3.7 billion. About 80-100 new bombers, perhaps replacing the air force's 83 Boeing B-52s, will be fielded in about 15 years amongst a vaguely-defined family of long-range strike systems.

The next-generation bomber has reappeared after Gates put the project on hold two years ago. "This has now been approached as a family of systems," says Maj Gen Alfred Flowers, the air force's deputy assistant secretary for budget. "The bomber is the centrepiece. There is [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], electronic attack and communications capabilities that will be part of this family of systems with the bomber as the centrepiece. We've learned a lot from the last year of leveraging the technologies that's out there."

The navy also has come along a way in the past year on the UCLASS requirement. The service plans to invest $120 million generated from planned efficiency improvements to speed up the carrier-based bomber. The proposed cash infusion should allow it to field an operational squadron in 2018.

Last August, some industry officials remained sceptical about the navy's commitment to the programme. When navy chief of staff Adm Gary Roughead addressed the 2010 AUVSI convention, a questioner from the defence industry asked why the navy was moving so fast.

"For me it's too damn slow. Seriously," Roughead replied. "We've got to have a sense of urgency about getting this stuff out there."