ALL THREE US tactical-aircraft programmes survived the Quadrenniel Defense Review (QDR) - but Congress will have to accept more base closures or one of the fighters may yet have to be cancelled. US Defense Secretary William Cohen has given lawmakers a stark choice: preserve the status quo and compromise combat capability; or cut excess infrastructure to pay for modernisation.

Initial Congressional reaction to the QDR suggests that Cohen may yet win through. After four bruising rounds of base closures, which are projected to save $5 billion a year by 2001, Congress appears willing to go another two rounds, in a bid to save another $3 billion. The cuts are a key element of the QDR, which seeks to find another $10-15 billion a year for modernisation within a defence budget which is expected to remain stable at $250 billion annually.

Cohen says that procurement funding has dropped unacceptably, to below $45 billion a year, and must be increased to $60 billion as soon as possible to modernise US forces. The QDR recommends achieving this by closing bases, reducing operating and support costs, and trimming force structure and weapons programmes.

The "strategy-based" review of US defence needs from 1997 to 2015 signals no dramatic change in posture. The QDR supports the requirement for US forces to be able to fight two near-simultaneous major regional conflicts and recognises that the demand for smaller-scale contingency operations is likely to remain high.

The QDR examined three options: maintaining the current force with almost no modernisation; cutting the force significantly to modernise thoroughly; and the path chosen - to balance modernisation with maintaining sufficient force structure to protect US interests worldwide.

Cohen says that the procurement "holiday" made possible by the defence build-up of the 1980s is now over. Reductions in infrastructure have not kept pace with the cuts in procurement, he argues, calling on Congress to close excess bases to pay for overdue modernisation - but bases mean votes.

The QDR calls for only modest reductions in force structure. The Army will retain its ten active divisions, the Navy will keep its 12 carrier battle-groups and 11 air wings, and the Marine Corps will maintain its three expeditionary forces. The Air Force will lose one of its 13 active fighter wings, which will be shifted to the reserve component.

The decision to disband one of four wings of McDonnell Douglas (MDC) F-15C air-superiority fighters has reduced the Air Force requirement for Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22As by 99 aircraft, to 339. The eventual requirement could still increase, as the service is to study the possibility of replacing its two wings of F-15E strike aircraft and the half wing of Lockheed F-117 stealth fighters with F-22 variants, after 2015.

An eighth reserve fighter wing will be formed. Some 60 fighters will be transferred from the active component to replace older Air National Guard aircraft, and six of ten reserve squadrons assigned to continental air-defence, and operating Lockheed Martin F-16As, will convert to general purpose, training or other missions.

The Air Force's bomber, tanker and airlift ßeets are left unchanged. Surprisingly, given the QDR's support for "information superiority", the Northrop Grumman E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) programme is to be cut from 19 to 13 aircraft. The Department of Defense (DoD) is counting on NATO buying six JSTARS aircraft under its Airborne Ground Surveillance programme, for which the USA will put up 45% of the funds.

A 13-aircraft fleet will be sufficient to support one major theatre war. If a second regional conflict breaks out, the JSTARS force will have to be moved between theatres, a necessity the Air Force already accepts for its limited F-117, Boeing E-3 airborne early-warning and Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint intelligence-gathering fleets.

Procuring additional Northrop Grumman B-2 bombers beyond the 21 planned was considered, and rejected, by the QDR. The review concludes that any advantages offered by additional B-2s were outweighed by the cuts in other weapon systems which would be required to pay for more aircraft. This was supported by the Deep Attack Weapons Mix Study, which concluded that equipping existing aircraft with precision-guided weapons would provide the offensive capability required.

On the weapons side, the QDR endorses existing DoD plans to procure the Lockheed Martin Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispenser, Textron's Sensor-Fuzed Weapon submunition, and the Texas Instruments Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW) with unitary warhead. Purchases of submunition-dispensing JSOWs might be decreased, procurement of the Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off Missile increased, and the mix of MDC Joint Direct Attack Munition variants changed.

While the Navy will retain its 12-carrier force, procurement of the upgraded MDC F-18E/F has been slashed to a minimum of 548, from a planned total of 1,000. Navy procurement of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has been increased accordingly, from 250 to 480. At least that is the plan. Cohen intends to introduce an element of competition by allowing the Navy to buy up to 748 F-18E/Fs - if the JSF is not available as planned in 2008. He hopes that this "creative tension" will keep the cost pressure on the JSF programme, which the DoD sees as the key to affordable modernisation in the longer term.

The Navy appears sanguine about the cut in F-18E/F procurement. The service had held out for a minimum of 50 fighters on each carrier and wanted the flexibility to decide the mix of aircraft at a later stage. Essentially, the QDR has granted the Navy this flexibility. Its future carrier air-wing will consist of one squadron of two-seat F-18Fs, replacing Grumman F-14s, and either one and a half squadrons each of F-18Es and JSFs, or two of F-18Es and one of JSFs.

The cut in F-18E/F procurement is not as deep as it at first seems. The original Navy requirement was for 660 aircraft. This was in- creased to 1,000 when the Marine Corps pulled out, but included 120 unfunded Command and Control Warfare variants of the F-18F to replace Grumman EA-6B electronic-warfare aircraft. The QDR says that the possibility of buying additional F-18E/Fs to replace EA-6Bs will be studied.

The JSF programme has not escaped the QDR unscathed. The total number planned has been cut to 2,852, from 2,978, by reducing the number of "pipeline" aircraft in the maintenance cycle and attrition reserve. The numbers for each service have been adjusted, with the Air Force taking the biggest cut, from 2,036 to 1,763, while the Marine Corps purchase has been trimmed, from 642 to 609. The Navy had previously reduced its planned procurement from 300 to 250. This will now increase to 480, depending on the outcome of the "competition" with the F-18E/F.

Procurement of the Bell Boeing MV-22 tilt-rotor transport for the Marine Corps has also been reduced, from 425 to 360, but production has been accelerated, resulting in programme savings of over $3 billion. The QDR cites the urgent need to replace Marine Corps Boeing CH-46 helicopters and the greater capability of the MV-22 as reasons for accelerating the programme while cutting procurement. Production of another 98 V-22s for the Air Force and Navy is unaffected by the QDR.

There is little aviation impact in the changes in Army force structure recommended by the QDR. An additional $1 billion has been budgeted to accelerate fielding of the first "digitised" corps under the Army's Force XXI modernisation programme. The MDC AH-64D Longbow Apache and Boeing Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche combat helicopters are key elements of this programme, and the QDR re-affirms the need for the Comanche. The review cautions that additional funds from base closures are critical to procuring the RAH-66 on the projected schedule and says that reductions in peak production rates may be required.

There are changes to the Army's air-defence programmes. The Lockheed Martin Theatre High-Altitude Air-Defence programme is to be restructured after four successive failures to intercept ballistic-missile targets, which have brought into "serious question" the ability to meet the service-entry date of 2004. The restructuring will enable the DoD to explore commonality in interceptor missiles and kill vehicles with the so far successful Hughes Navy Theatre- Wide ballistic-missile defence programme.

Funding for the Medium Extended Air-Defence System (MEADS) programme, which involves the USA, Germany and Italy, will be extended to 1999, but the longer-term future of the project, to replace the Hawk surface-to-air missile, remains uncertain.

The biggest change is an increase of $2 billion for the National Missile Defence (NMD) programme to develop a system able to protect the continental USA from ballistic-missile attack. The additional money will fully fund the so-called "three-plus-three" programme intended to result in an integrated system test in 1999, a decision on whether to deploy the system in 2000, and initial operating capability in 2003.

Two teams were awarded six-month concept-development contracts in April, and the DoD plans to choose either Boeing/MDC or United Missile Defense (Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and TRW) as the lead systems integrator early in 1998. Although the extra funding will provide for additional testing of the NMD system's exo-atmospheric kill-vehicle, Cohen admits that the programme is "high risk".

The impact on manufacturers of the QDR depends of how quickly the programme cuts take effect. In addition to trimming the three tactical-aircraft programmes, procurement has been slowed. Production of the F-22 will ramp up more slowly than scheduled, to a maximum of 36 a year, compared with the 48 originally planned.

F-18E/F production will build up to a maximum of 48 a year, compared with the 60 previously planned, and the ramp-up to full rate will be delayed by two years, to 2002. MDC, which at one point was planning to build 72 F-18E/Fs a year, says that 48 is the minimum economic production rate.

The maximum planned production rate on the JSF programme of 194 aircraft a year will be reached in 2012, rather than 2010 as originally planned. Development is scheduled to get under way in 2001, with Boeing/MDC and Lockheed Martin/Northrop Grumman competing for the programme. The QDR cautions that uncertainties in the JSF production cost warrant careful DoD oversight of the cost-benefit trade-offs in design.

Source: Flight International