The US Congress today passed defence spending bills slashing funds for the Lockheed Martin F-35 and Lockheed/AugstaWestland VH-71 presidential helicopter, and also left the Lockheed F-22 and Boeing C-17 production lines still in a state of programmatic purgatory.

A joint conference committee passed the $487.7 billion defense appropriations for fiscal 2009, marking a 6.1% increase over the FY08 budget but $4 billion less than the Bush Administration’s request.

The spending proposal, if enacted upon review by the White House, would strike two blows at the F-35 programme.

First, the bill would cut one aircraft each for the US Air Force and the US Navy from the FY09, reducing the overall count from 16 F-35s to 14.

Second, Congressional appropriators added language urging the USN to request funds in FY10 for signing a third multi-year procurement deal for Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, citing concerns about a fighter shortfall until F-35Cs are delivered.

The lawmakers proved less decisive about the fate of the F-22 and the C-17.

The appropriators added $523 million in long-lead funding, potentially extending F-22 production from the end of FY09 through FY10. However, Congress also passed a defence policy bill that forbids the Pentagon from spending most of the money until the next administration agrees to buy more F-22s.

Similarly, the fate of the imperiled C-17 production line is also confused. The defence policy bill authorizes the USAF to spend $2.1 billion for six C-17s, but the appropriations bill fails to provide funding. Congress also may propose to add funds for up to 15 C-17s in an emergency supplemental bill.

Meanwhile, another budget cut is likely to create a new crisis for the VH-71 presidential helicopter. Citing delay risks for the Increment 2 phase, lawmakers agreed to cut $212 million from the programme. Research and development for the Increment 2 fleet was hardest hit, falling by two-thirds in FY09. The Increment 1 programme was fully funded.

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.