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Naval Forces 

Navy ‘Fighter Gap’ Is Just One Cog In the Pentagon’s Budget Wheel 

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by Sandra I. Erwin 

The epic political battle witnessed in recent weeks over the fate of the Air Force’s F-22 fighter has stirred a broader and potentially even more heated debate about the future of the Navy’s tactical aviation programs.

For carrier-based aviation, this means more tough fights are ahead for a share of a shrinking big-ticket weapons budget.

The Navy, first and foremost, will be competing for resources that also are being sought by the Air Force and the Army. Its weapons procurement budget also will experience an internal struggle for dollars to fund new aircraft and ships. The Defense Department does not expect major budget increases so any additional spending in any given program must be offset by cuts elsewhere.

More importantly, the Navy's -- as well as the Air Force's -- case for boosting their tactical aviation fleets is being made at a time when the Defense Department is trying to shift resources from big-ticket conventional weapon systems to help pay for current wars and soaring manpower costs.

The Navy laid out a case earlier this year that its tactical aviation fleet is in danger of falling below the required size it needs in order to support a force of 11 aircraft carriers. Estimates of this so-called “fighter gap” range from 125 to 243 aircraft by about 2015. Contributing to the shortage are two major factors: the continuing wear and tear of the F/A-18C/D Hornet fleet and expected delays in the delivery of the new F-35B and F-35C Joint Strike Fighters, Navy officials said.

The Navy has been weighing options for bridging the projected aircraft shortfall, such as extending the life of older Hornets or buying new F/A-18E/Fs Super Hornets. But both options come with high price tags. Further complicating the picture is the politics that typically engulfs big-ticket military programs. Congressional supporters of the Super Hornet’s manufacturer, the Boeing Co., have mounted a full-court press to keep the aircraft assembly line going. The Navy had originally planned to stop buying Super Hornets after it started receiving Lockheed-made F-35s, but pro-Boeing lawmakers have been arguing that the United States should keep both companies in the tactical fighter business to preserve competition.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has deferred major buying decisions until the completion of the Quadrennial Defense Review in February 2010. The QDR is expected to forecast the size and shape of U.S. military forces that the nation will need to meet anticipated threats. That could well mean bad news for naval aviation if the QDR recommends a smaller carrier fleet.

All these unsettled issues have created a climate of confusion regarding the future size and makeup of the Navy’s aviation force.

The Navy has left the door open on just about every option, said Ronald O’Rourke, a specialist in naval affairs at the Congressional Research Service.

Extending the life of older Hornets seemed like an attractive option but, at $26 million per aircraft, is becoming less palatable to members of Congress, O’Rourke said at a conference of the Center for National Policy in Washington, D.C.

“If that does, indeed, turn out to be cost of extending the A/Ds from 8,600 hours to 10,000 hours, then I think policymakers are going to possibly be interested in comparing that option against the option of procuring new E/Fs instead,” he said.

The Navy-Marine Corps aviation shortfall should also be looked at as part of the larger issue of the affordability of the Defense Department’s aircraft procurement plans, O’Rourke said. The Air Force has projected its own fighter shortfall a year ago of up to 800 aircraft by 2024. The Navy also must balance its aviation priorities against the financial crunch it faces in its shipbuilding plan, O’Rourke said.

The QDR could affect long-term aviation plans, but it is too early to tell, he said. Pentagon officials have hinted that the QDR will recommend that the U.S. military be prepared for both low-intensity and conventional warfare. But it will do away with a previous strategy that required the Pentagon to be ready to fight simultaneously two major conventional wars.

“If that’s the case, if we’re moving to a new strategy that looks at these other kinds of conflicts and one major regional peer competitor -- rather than two overlapping major regional conflicts,” said O’Rourke. “Then the question that would flow out of that is what value carriers and carrier air wings would have in helping to fulfill that strategy.”

Carriers and carrier air wings would be used not just for irregular warfare operations and potentially a conflict with a peer competitor, but also to maintain day-to-day forward-deployed presence for purposes of deterrence and crisis response, he said. 

The future roles and missions of U.S. forces are still being hotly debated in the QDR, and no final conclusions have yet been reached, said David Ochmanek, deputy assistant secretary of defense for force development. “There’s still a lot of deliberation going on in the Pentagon about the ultimate capacity of the force,” Ochmanek told reporters. He insisted that Gates is a strong proponent of flexible forces that can adapt from low- to high-end conflicts, and that are able to engage in multiple fronts.

Naval aviation advocates are hopeful that the QDR will reinforce the value of carrier-based tactical fighters, and that it will support either upgrading the aging Hornets or buying new Super Hornets.

Retired Adm. Robert Dunn, president of the Association of Naval Aviation, said the Navy needs 10 air wings to meet current operational needs -- four squadrons per air wing, or 40 squadrons. But there are only 37 squadrons available, 34 Navy and one Marine, he said. “The other three were supposed to have been Marine squadrons, but the Marine squadrons are understandably taken up with obligations in Iraq and Afghanistan. So the Navy has to make do.”

The Navy’s goal of replacing the aging F-18Cs and Ds with F-35s seems unrealistic, Dunn said. Can we accelerate the F-35 schedule? Everything I’ve heard or read says there’s not much a chance of doing that.” Ordering more F/A-18E/Fs would solve the problem, he said.

As of July, 2009, Boeing had delivered 401 Super Hornets and 12 Growlers -- electronic warfare variants of the Super Hornet -- to the Navy. Bob Gower, Boeing vice president for the F/A-18 said that under the current multi-year procurement contract for 257 aircraft, 128 remain to be delivered.

The Navy has more than 600 classic Hornets in the fleet.

Members of the House and Senate have indicated they will support buying more F/A-18E/Fs beyond the 128 that Boeing still is producing under contract. Senate authorizers approved $560 million to fund nine additional Super Hornets in fiscal year 2010.

The House Appropriations Committee also provided funds for nine additional Super Hornets, as well as a $108 million down payment for a future multiyear deal with Boeing.

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