If it is an unmanned aircraft or helicopter, the US military probably wants more of it. If it is a manned fighter, bomber or airlifter, the preference is to manage with a great deal fewer and, for some aircraft types, none at all.

That is one basic interpretation of the two important documents submitted to Congress last week by the Bush administration. Although the fiscal year 2007 budget request is a snapshot and the Quadrennial Defence Review is mainly a long-range strategic blueprint, this interpretation also seems to define a developing trend over the past five years.

The key difference this year is the method the Pentagon intends to use to thin its portfolio of airpower options. The top brass’s strategy seems to have shifted to focus on retiring the oldest and least relevant aircraft that are already in the inventory. This avoids igniting a backlash by lawmakers over big ticket weapons purchases, but opens a new war on the tradition of some in Congress to require the military to extend the lives of ageing aircraft, thus preserving a local military base that might otherwise be closed or diminished.

It is not clear if this option will prove to be any more successful than last year’s bold attempt to terminate a handful of major aerospace programmes, ranging from the Lockheed Martin C-130J, to the Joint Common Missile (JCM) and the Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser-Extended Range (WCMD-ER). Each lives on in some form. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld retreated on the C-130J and production orders will continue for several years. The JCM was put on life support with a $30 million add-on by Congress. Meanwhile, the formally terminated WCMD-ER was brought back virtually unnoticed, and the Pentagon is requesting $34.7 million for the programme, now renamed Sensor Fuzed Weapon-Extended Range, in FY07.

Even Rumsfeld’s few victories in last year’s fierce budget wars appear less clear-cut today, particularly as regards the Lockheed F-22 Raptor. Last year, Congress agreed to Rumsfeld’s request to close the production line four years early in FY08, capping total orders at 179. But only a few months since the FY06 budget was passed, the F-22’s early demise in FY08 has already been partly reversed. The air force has won approval to stretch production four more years, having argued that it would be unwise to allow the only US stealth fighter production line to close before it is clear that Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter production is in full motion. The air force can be expected to use the four-year extension of F-22 production to press its case for buying greater numbers of Raptors, for which it has a long-standing requirement for 381 aircraft.

Of course, this sets the air force on a collision path with that larger trend in US military acquisition. Cheaper, older fighters are being replaced with much more expensive, but far more capable new aircraft. The trend began about four years ago with the US Navy decision to consolidate its tactical aircraft fleets, reducing its future fighter purchases by about 500 aircraft, including about 300 F-35Bs and F-35Cs. The architect of that strategy was none other than former navy secretary and ex-General Dynamics executive Gordon England, who now guides overall Pentagon acquisition policy as Rumsfeld’s deputy secretary of defence.

The QDR is his tool for implementing broad policy reforms. England, who helped develop the Lockheed F-16, seems focused on streamlining the DoD’s manned tactical aircraft “portfolio”. In the past year, senior defence officials have used the term “oversubscribed” to describe the Pentagon’s investments in fighters versus other forms of weapons systems.

England’s approach may be for the best. If fewer super-capable fighters can do the work of many older ones, then so much the better. The unanswerable question is how to implement such a strategy on a clearly reluctant Congress. England’s effort in 2002 to streamline US Navy and marine corps tactical air fleets was successful, but that was before Congress began to notice that some of their bases were under threat. Given last year’s budget fiasco, going the outright termination route doesn’t seem a particularly attractive option either.

This is where the manned, fixed-wing military aviation community is today, trading perhaps hundreds of older aircraft into retirement to obtain the privilege of buying a relative few replacements. Congress still gets its say, but, this time, it may do better to heed the military’s wishes.

Source: Flight International