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Gates raises uncomfortable questions for naval aviation

Questions raised by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on 3 May about the affordability of a new generation of warships for the US Navy also post concerns about the future of naval aviation.

Addressing the Navy League's Sea-Air-Space exposition in Washington DC, Gates challenged a heavily pro-shipbuilding audience to consider the fiscal feasibility of future naval fleets. "At the end of the day, we have to ask whether the nation can really afford a navy that relies on $3-6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines and $11 billion carriers," he says.

© US Navy
The USN is considering a third multi-year buy of the Boeing Super Hornet

One year after spearheading a successful campaign to terminate production of the US Air Force's Lockheed Martin F-22 after building 187 aircraft, Gates now appears to be aiming at shipbuilding accounts.

Although Gates notes that the fiscal year 2011 budget request supports the navy's current force structure plans, he raised questions about the practicality of his own spending proposal.

"Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities."

Gates has raised the discussion at the same time that USN and Marine Corps aviation is managing an historic period of transition, with several fixed- and rotary-wing fleets being replaced simultaneously.

Meanwhile, the navy is supporting plans to buy more than 500 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and 680 Lockheed Martin F-35B/C Joint Strike Fighters. Although the navy faced a 30 April deadline set by Congress to decide whether to support a third multi-year procurement deal for F/A-18E/Fs, the Navy League event passed without confirmation.

Even with that level of investment, the navy has projected a shortfall of more than 170 fighters after 2017, based on current plans to sustain 11 aircraft carriers. Any decrease in the number of carrier strike groups, as queried by Gates, could slash the inventory requirement by scores of aircraft.

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