New long-range strike aircraft still on Air Force's radar

The Air Force's top officer on Tuesday presented an ambitious plan for his service, including acquiring "a new generation of long-range strike and reconnaissance" capability and successfully completing procurement of the much-delayed airborne refueling tanker replacement.

But Gen. Norton Schwartz acknowledged that those and other desired improvements face the prospect of little or no real growth in future defense budgets.

Although he knew that meant "we will have to calibrate our appetite," the Air Force chief of staff said, "We are not going to submerge the things we really think we need for the national security. We certainly are going to make our case" to Congress and the administration.

If programs had to be curtailed, Schwartz said, "it would be far better for the Air Force to make those choices" than Congress or the Pentagon.

The long-range strike program was stopped by Defense Secretary Robert Gates this year and is being reviewed in the Quadrennial Defense Review and the Nuclear Posture Review. While the Air Force would prefer a new bomber, Gates and others have suggested the capability could be provided by an unmanned system.

In a speech to the Air Force Association conference and in a news conference at Maryland's National Harbor convention center, Schwartz recalled the turbulence his service has endured due to failed major procurement programs, conviction of a senior acquisition official for awarding an overpriced contract to a firm that promised her a job, and mishandling of nuclear weapons and components.

He told the audience of Air Force personnel, including many of its top officers, and supporters that the service has made progress in regaining the confidence of Pentagon leaders, Congress and the American people. But he urged his service members to continue efforts to rebuild a culture of perfection and integrity.

With many of those crises behind them, Schwartz said they could again be "ambitious" and focus on longer term issues. He echoed the comment made Monday by Air Force Secretary Michael Donley that the top immediate priority was completing the KC-X tanker replacement program, which was ensnared in the contract fraud case and a contract award to a Northrop Grumman-Airbus team that was protested by the losing competitor, Boeing.

The new request for bids is expected in a couple of weeks and a contract award is projected for late next spring. But with billions of dollars at stake, it is widely expected that the loser would again file a formal protest.

Schwartz said he understood that "there are company imperatives" that could lead to a protest, but the Air Force intended to submit a request for proposals that is "foolproof" and would work through any protest.

On other issues, Schwartz said a congressional proposal to produce an export version of the F-22, was "more of a commercial issue" and not something that should occupy Air Force procurement officials. He also expressed confidence a recent malfunction during ground testing of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter engine would not slow that aircraft program, which remains a high priority.

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