Air Force Weapon Buyers Brace for Lean Times

By Sandra I. Erwin

FORT WALTON BEACH, FLA. – Military leaders have spent the past six months warning lawmakers that if sequester cuts continue, forces will be untrained and unprepared for a future war.

Despite repeated warnings, however, Congress might not yet fully grasp the idea that sequester also could kill hundreds of weapons acquisition programs, the Air Force's top procurement official said Nov. 5 at the 39th Air Armaments Symposium, at the Emerald Coast Convention Center near Eglin Air Force Base.

Since the automatic budget cuts known as sequester went into effect in March, the focus has been on the impact they have had on military training and readiness. Less attention has been paid to research, development and acquisition programs, many of which might not survive under the reduced spending caps mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act, said William LaPlante Jr, the Air Force's principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition. He is awaiting Senate confirmation to become assistant secretary.

“I think it is important that we learn how to tell the story of the effects of sequester,” LaPlante told an audience of nearly 1,000 Air Force officials and defense contractors. “The service chiefs have done an excellent job explaining the impact of readiness. That message is beginning to be better understood on Capitol Hill,” he said. “But in the 'investment world,' we are having more of a struggle.”

LaPlante warned Air Force program managers and contractors that they should prepare for future program terminations or, at the very least, a slowdown in getting new programs started.

Members of Congress, who stand to lose thousands of defense industry jobs in their districts if programs are canceled, are sympathetic to the Defense Department's budget woes but so far have not acted to undo the sequester because the damage from the cuts is not yet visible. “It's kind of sad,” LaPlante said. “You go to the Hill and you hear two messages: 'We're really, really sorry for doing this to you. Sequester is horrible. But, oh by the way, you are not really telling us how horrible it is.” LaPlante described the situation as as a “weird dichotomy.”

The reason the impact is not yet obvious is that, just like it takes years to start a major weapon acquisition program, it also takes years to cancel one, LaPlante said. With no topline budget yet appropriated for 2014, programs remain on hold. Many have been delayed, and a portion most likely will not survive the sequester, he said.

“Any new big acquisition program is going to be under the microscope,” said LaPlante. “The only way to make the cut is by looking at any new program that comes along and delay it.”
LaPlante's office is still hoping for relief. “We are fighting as hard as we can,” he said. He has been working with Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisitions Frank Kendall to “make sure the programs that really need to continue to go ahead go ahead.” Programs that are not “must haves” and fall into a "gray area" are going to be held up.

Among the programs the Air Force will protect at all costs are the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the long-range bomber, and the KC-46 air refueling tanker. Falling into that gray area are the T-X trainer aircraft and a replacement for the J-STARS, or Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System. Those two programs, said LaPlante. He said these two projects are “important” but might not make it under sequester.

The organization that dictates weapon requirements for the Air Force, the Air Combat Command, expects to see its wish list shrink, even though  airmen continue to request new technology, said Stan Newberry, deputy director of Air Combat Command.

ACC will more closely scrutinize equipment requests as it will become increasingly difficult to get approval for new programs, Newberry said at the Air Armaments Symposium.

“We will have fewer opportunities to buy things so we have to get this right,” he said. Despite the funding crunch, ACC is not giving up ambitious goals to develop next-generation fighters and bombers, said Newberry. Because future U.S. Enemies are likely to be able to defeat current “fourth generation” fighters, the Air Force intends to push forward its so-called F-X project to design a new fighter that would be more advanced and stealthier than the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  

“The F-X program is real for us,” said Newberry. Although contractors have complained that the program has been off to a slow start, “I think you will see us ramp up efforts,” he said. The Air Force plans to partner with the Navy for F-X, although it does not plan a repeat of the F-35. “Don't get too excited,” said Newberry. “All of us are trying to avoid another 'joint' acquisition.”

Other priorities are the long-range bomber to replace aging B-52 and B-1s, and high-end simulators that provide realistic combat training, said Newberry. “There are a lot of challenges” in replicating complex training conditions in simulators, he said. “It's an area we are appealing for help to industry.”

Topics: Armaments, Aviation, Strategic Weapons, Procurement, Acquisition Reform

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