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.
carrier-based aviation, this means more tough fights are ahead for a share of a
shrinking big-ticket weapons budget.
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.
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.
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.
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.
these unsettled issues have created a climate of confusion regarding the future
size and makeup of the Navy’s aviation force.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.