Only a year ago, a flag officer described the Navy’s aircraft procurement
program as “our biggest challenge.”
At the time, the officer showed a spending plan that funded 85 aircraft in
2004, with quantities gradually increasing through 2007, when the total aircraft
buy soared to 193.
“Our goal is 180 to 210 aircraft per year,” said the official.
When the same official recently presented the Navy’s budget for the coming
fiscal year, the aviation picture had changed dramatically. This time, there
was no mention of the 180-to-210 aircraft goal. Rather, the forecast showed
that tactical-aviation procurement accounts would be shrinking drastically,
largely due to the consolidation of Navy and Marine Corps strike fighter units,
slated to begin this year.
The decision to merge the two services’ aviation units, dubbed “tac-air
integration,” was sealed last fall, when then-Commandant Gen. James L.
Jones and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vernon Clark signed a “memorandum
of agreement.” Part of the deal is to transfer the base of operations
for six Marine squadrons of F/A-18 strike fighters, from land to Navy aircraft
carriers. The six would be added to the four Marines squadrons that already
operate from carriers. Each of the 10 squadrons will be assigned to a Navy air
wing. Conversely, three Navy fighter squadrons will be relocated to land-based
The tac-air consolidation agreement generally stipulates that, in the future,
there will be a “seamless integration” of Navy and Marine squadrons,
which will “train, deploy and fight side by side,” said a Navy spokesman.
The Navy estimated that the integration will save $19 billion in future aircraft
The cutbacks in future buys most heavily affect the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
program, which will lose 409 aircraft. The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet program will
have 88 fewer airplanes.
The JSF program as first conceived included 480 carrier-based aircraft for
the Navy and 480 short-takeoff (STOVL) versions for the Marine Corps. The Super
Hornet program is being restructured, with fewer E/Fs and the addition of up
to 90 G-models, called the EA-18, for electronic warfare missions. The current
five-year spending plan includes 56 EA-18s.
When all is said and done, the United States will have 59 Navy-Marine strike
fighter squadrons flying 1,140 aircraft. That compares with 64 squadrons in
service today, operating 1,637 aircraft.
The Navy will be decommissioning three active-duty and one reserve F/A-18 squadrons,
while the Marines expect to decommission one reserve fighter squadron. The services
have not yet settled on a schedule for the disbandment of those units.
Joint Strike Fighter
The sizeable drop in future JSF purchases by the U.S. military services, said
program officials, should not affect the airplane’s estimated unit cost
of $37 million for the Air Force version, $47 million for the carrier-based
aircraft and $46 million for the STOVL model.
The JSF program manager, Air Force Maj. Gen. John Hudson, said that foreign
sales would help offset the reduced U.S. buys.
“We have baselined our cost estimates for all the models on a total of
3,002 airplanes — 2,852 for the United States and 150 for United Kingdom,”
Hudson said at an industry conference. Due to the growing international participation
in the program, he said, “The grand totals will more than be made up with
additional sales to other partner countries.”
Foreign sales, however, will not help the Navy, whose carrier-based JSF is
not expected to be purchased by any of the current JSF international partners.
The Air Force, the largest buyer of Joint Strike Fighters, will lose only a
small fraction of its original planned quantity — about 143 from a total
buy of about 1,400 airplanes. As is to be expected, critics are questioning
the rationale for slashing the Navy/Marine JSF program, without comparable cuts
on the Air Force side.
Having the Navy and the Marine Corps bear the brunt of the JSF cuts may not
be the wisest move, when one looks at the current geopolitical reality confronting
the United States, said Andrew W. Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic
and Budgetary Assessment, a non-partisan think tank that advocates military
At a time when warfare is becoming more “expeditionary,” and land
bases are a tough political sell in many countries around the world, “the
threat to forward air bases will grow,” Krepinevich said. “The fact
of the matter is that tactical aviation is tied to those fixed forward bases.
Sometimes we don’t get access to those bases for political reasons.”
As far as JSF goes, “If we are going to procure lots of these systems
and put them on forward air bases, we are going to have to address that problem
somehow.” The concern about future access to air bases became a front-burner
issue nearly 10 years ago, when Defense Secretary William J. Perry worried that
the 1994 standoff with North Korea would jeopardize the ability of U.S. forces
to operate from air bases and ports in the area.
Given the Defense Department’s emphasis on “transformation,”
he said, “if you were to make reductions in the JSF program, you would
make them in the areas of JSF where you would be operating off land bases.”
Referring to aircraft that can operate off mobile offshore bases or ships, he
said, “Those would be the last areas where I would make cuts in this program.”