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US fighter, airlifter production future muddled by spending bills

The US Congress has passed defence spending bills for fiscal year 2009 that encourage more Boeing F/A-18 production, but slash Lockheed Martin F-35 orders and leave the Lockheed F-22 and Boeing C-17 production lines hanging in limbo.

The budget committees did little to bring clarity to the future of the US military aircraft industrial base, and left the next president facing difficult decisions on whether to extend or shut active production lines for fighters and airlifters.

But the F/A-18E/F scored a major victory. An approved spending bill urges the US Navy to budget for a third multi-year procurement deal in FY2010 to address a projected fighter shortfall of "approximately 69 aircraft", supporting ongoing talks between the USN and Boeing on a multi-year deal for about 150 aircraft for delivery through 2016.

But a five-year deal for the F/A-18E/F, if approved, could muddle prospects for the F-35C carrier-based variant. That aircraft is now scheduled to reach initial operational capability in FY2015, or one year before the potential end of F/A-18E/F production, and having fighters in overlapping full-rate production is likely to be a fiscal luxury that the USN can ill-afford. Meanwhile, the FY2009 defence spending bills also pinch the F-35 production by reducing next year's orders by two aircraft, to 17 including three orders from the UK and the Netherlands.

Lawmakers added $523 million in long-lead funding for the F-22, potentially extending production from the end of FY2009 through FY2010, pending approval by the next president.

The future of C-17 production is also confused. The USAF is authorised to spend $2.1 billion for six aircraft, but the appropriations bill fails to provide funding.

Another budget cut is likely to create a new crisis for the VH-71 presidential helicopter, with $212 million cut from the programme's Increment 2 development phase.

The Bell Helicopter ARH-70 Arapaho armed reconnaissance helicopter also sustained more funding cuts in the new spending bills. Congress voted to provide $198 million to buy 12 aircraft, which is $161 million and 16 aircraft less than the Bush administration requested.

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