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Next US Navy budget battle pits ships against strike fighters

A recent directive by the US secretary of defence that pits strike fighters against ships in the navy’s next five-year spending plan will be a showdown to watch going into 2016, with increases in F-35C and F/A-18 spending coming at the expense of the Littoral Combat Ship.

The 14 December memorandum by secretary Ashton Carter suggest a budgetary exchange will be made across the 2017-2021 spending plan, with less priority on ship counts and more investment in combat aircraft, armaments and electronic warfare capabilities.

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The F-35C carrier variant is the navy's newest strike fighter, but the service has chosen to trim F-35C procurement in recent budgets.

US Navy

The memo directs the secretary of the navy to add funding for 31 more F-35Cs than proposed and to continue buying F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in fiscal 2018.

These measures would be partially offset by capping Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) procurement at 40 ships instead of 52 and down-selecting to one supplier: Lockheed Martin or General Dynamics.

The directive seemingly overturns other contentious navy proposals, like cutting three Northrop Grumman E-2Ds and one MQ-4C Triton and 420 Raytheon AIM-120D air-to-air missiles.

Other budget measures overturned could have “disrupted” development and fielding of new infrared search-and-track sensors, jammers and radar upgrades for navy combat jets.

While this reversal is good news for the aerospace sector, shipbuilders and LCS proponents won’t sink quietly. As one commenter notes, Carter’s stated objection to building past the navy’s 308-ship goal dismisses a 2014 national defence panel recommendation for between “323 and 346 ships,” and overlooks the long-term nature of funding and building vessels compared to fighters.

“That story hasn’t ended yet,” cautions Deloitte aerospace and defence analyst Tom Captain. “The political process is now taking over, and there may be people lobbying to do something different. I don’t think it’s over yet.”

Exactly how this budgetary saga will shape up depends on the final details of the service’s spending proposal – due out in late January or February – and the reaction of LCS advocates in Congress.

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Upgrades and service-life extensions are keeping the Boeing F/A-18 in service longer than intended, since the F-35C won't become operational until 2018.

US Navy

US lawmakers sent an encouraging signal in November by adding funds in fiscal 2016 for 11 extra F-35s, seven EA-18G Growlers and five F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.

The warm embrace comes at a fortuitous time for the F-35 programme, which secured a $1.2 billion contract in late December to fund long-lead parts for 94 “Lot 11” aircraft.

Carter’s directive to buy more Super Hornets in 2018 and the extra money from Congress for 2016 firm up the Boeing production line in St Louis, Missouri, which faced closure without more orders.

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