New Life for New Programs

What a difference a war makes.Or three, specifically, the post-Sept. 11 war on international terror and two major regional conflicts-Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraqi Freedom in Iraq-all in the space of less than two years.

Prior to these campaigns, the Pentagon's ambitious plans to replace much of its inventory of tactical aircraft with newer models seemed in jeopardy. During the 2000 presidential campaign, then-candidate George Bush suggested that his administration would instead push for an ambitious transformation of the U.S. military by forcing the armed services to "skip a generation" of weapons systems. The Bush team singled out three expensive new tactical aircraft programs-the Navy F/A-18E/F, the multiservice Joint Strike Fighter, and the Air Force F-22-as potentially unaffordable and possibly ripe for cancellation.

As recently as May 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered Pentagon planners to draft strategies for potential cuts to five of the military's most expensive programs, including Lockheed Martin's F-22, the Boeing-Textron V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport, and the Boeing-United Technologies Comanche helicopter.

But the cancellations and major cuts to aircraft programs never materialized. All of the military services are practically flying the wings off their aging fleets as part of ongoing operations, and the notion of a "strategic pause" that would allow them to skip a generation of aircraft perished in the rubble of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"With the exception of the Crusader artillery system, which was canceled last year, the administration has decided to move ahead with virtually all of the major weapons platforms," Steven Kosiak, a budget analyst with the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said in recent congressional testimony.

The administration's fiscal 2004 budget request includes $5.2 billion to buy 22 F/A-22 fighters, plus $937 million for continued development of the aircraft, which are designed to replace the Air Force's fleet of F-15 air superiority fighters and F-15E ground attack aircraft. The request also includes $3.2 billion for the Navy's F/A-18E/F program, which is intended to replace the fleet of F-14s, A-6Es and earlier F-18s. Plans call for the Navy to buy 552 of the aircraft at a cost of about $49 billion.

The budget likewise includes $4.4 billion for continued development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, potentially the largest and most lucrative aircraft program in history. The program is designed to field a family of affordable fighter aircraft to replace Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps fighters. But cost constraints have forced the Navy and Marines to reduce their planned orders from 1,089 to 680 fighters.

Despite the emphasis on new aircraft, two programs remain on something akin to probation-the Marines' V-22 and the Army's Comanche helicopter. The proposed 2004 budget includes $544 million in research and development funding for the V-22, but the program's production is limited to a "minimum sustaining rate." Likewise, the Pentagon has proposed to spend $1.1 billion next year on the Comanche, but recently decided to reduce the total number of helicopters it plans to purchase from 1,200 to 650.

Given rapidly rising budget deficits and the historical cost growth in weapons programs, some analysts are predicting that despite today's generous procurement climate, tactical aircraft programs still are likely to face difficulties in the future.

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