Dodging bullets in a presidential election year, the US Department of Defense has put the fate of the Lockheed Martin F-22 fighter and Boeing C-17 airlifter into the hands of the next administration.

The Pentagon's fiscal year 2009 budget requests funds for the final 20 of a planned 183 F-22s, but none of the money required to either buy more aircraft or shut down the line in FY10. Similarly the DoD has requested no funds to buy more C-17s or close the line after the last aircraft on order is delivered in 2010.

Defence secretary Robert Gates says the DoD will ask for "four or so" additional F-22s in the FY09 war-related supplemental budget request to be submitted later this year. This will keep the line open through 2010 and avoid having to take a decision on the fighter's future before the next president takes office.

The lack of action on the future of the F-22 and C-17 shows the DoD is marking time with this budget until the next administration takes power. Aside from increasing US defence spending by 7.5% to $515.4 billion, the FY09 budget request contains few significant changes to programme plans.

Alternative engine

As expected, funding is requested for 16 Lockheed F-35s - eight each for the US Air Force and US Marine Corps - keeping Joint Strike Fighter production on the ramp laid out in FY08. But the Pentagon has made a third attempt to cut JSF programme costs by eliminating the General Electric/Rolls-Royce F136 alternative engine. Previously Congress has restored the funding.

Gates is concerned that expanding F-22 production will come at the expense of the JSF. He told Congress that 183 F-22s is "probably the right number" because of the stealth fighter's expense. Average unit cost of the F-22 is $154 million compared with an estimated $91 million for the USAF's F-35A. He said the low risk of conflict with a "near peer" adversary (meaning China) justifies keeping F-22 production below 200 aircraft.

Plans to ramp up JSF procurement significantly from FY10 would be threatened by any extension of F-22 production. F-35 production for the three US services is planned to increase from 30 in FY10 to 90 in FY13. This is the same period in which the US Air Force must find funds to begin procurement of the KC-X replacement tanker and CSAR-X combat search-and-rescue helicopter, as well as development of its Next Generation Bomber.

But, for FY09, funding requested for US Navy aircraft procurement actually exceeds that for the US Air Force, and includes 23 Boeing F/A-18E/F fighters and 22 electronic-attack EA-18Gs, keeping that programme on track. The USN also wants 44 Hawker Beechcraft T-6 trainers, USAF procurement of which ended in FY08.

No funds are sought for USAF Lockheed C-130Js, but this is misleading as there are 17 of the airlifters in the DoD's FY08 supplemental budget request that Congress has yet to approve. Additionally, the USAF plans to buy 14 modified KC-130J tankers in FY09/10 to kick-start replacement of its special-operations HC/MC-130 fleet.

Some troubled programmes have survived, the FY09 budget requesting funds for development, but not procurement, of the US Navy's Lockheed/AgustaWest-land VH-71A presidential helicopter. Dodging the bullet again, the DoD makes clear "funding adjustments will be required in FY10 and beyond" to extend development and reduce risk. But funding is sought in FY09 for two test articles for the Increment 2 VH-71, with its uprated rotors, engines and transmission.

Bell's ARH-70 armed reconnaissance helicopter for the US Army and UH-1Y/AH-1Z upgrade for the US Marine Corps both survive their recent troubles, but with the production ramp-up slowed following restructuring of the programmes. Funds are requested for 28 ARHs, down substantially from the original plan, plus 20 H-1 upgrades. The DoD wants to ramp up procurement of the Bell Boeing V-22 tiltrotor as planned in FY09 to 30 USMC MV-22s plus six USAF CV-22s. Other US Army and Navy rotorcraft programmes stay on track.

Of the 93 aircraft planned to be procured by the US Air Force under the FY09 budget, 52 are unmanned. The request includes five Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawks and 47 General Atomics Aeronautical Systems UAVs - 38 MQ-1 Predators plus nine MQ-9 Reapers (up from four in FY08). The US Army wants another 12 MQ-1C Warriors, while the US Navy trims its UAV appetite just three Northrop MQ-8 Fire Scouts.

The US Air Force's FY09 budget request paves the way for several new procurements planned to begin in FY10, including the KC-X tanker, CSAR-X helicopter and the Joint Cargo Aircraft. The US Army is seeking funds for another seven L-3/Alenia C-27J JCAs in FY09, but USAF procurement will not begin until FY10. Only development money is sought for KC-X and CSAR-X in FY09, with procurement to begin in FY10.

The Pentagon's decision to avoid decisions with its FY09 budget request is likely to hand even greater control of funding priorities to Congress as it marks up the defence budget in a presidential election year. This could spill over into FY10 budget and effect several new programmes.

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Source: Flight International