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Can the Air Force Afford the New Bomber?

by John Reed on July 18, 2011

If the Pentagon holds to its current plans to chop hundreds billions of dollars from defense spending over the next decade the U.S. Air Force may need to rethink it’s acquisition plans according to Todd Harrison defense budget specialist at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an influential DC think tank.

The Defense Department is looking to shave hundreds of billions of dollars from its budgets over the coming 10–12 years; this means that all branches of the military will see pain and the Pentagon will probably have to make some tough choices in what strategic areas it wants to invest in and where to cut funding, argues Harrison.

These choices will likely mean that high-end weapons do well at the expense of things like MRAPs that are needed for COIN operations, argues Harrison.

However, the Air Force will have too many major programs under production in the 2020s to avoid cuts to its high-end weapons buys. By the early 2020s the Air Force will still be buying plenty of F-35 Lighning II Joint Strike Fighters and the KC-46A tanker will also be rolling off the assembly lines. These two expensive programs are to be joined by the services new bomber; of which the Air Force plans on buying around 100.

Here’s what Harrison said this morning on the subject at a press conference to discuss the Pentagon’s budget:

If you look at the Air Force’s projection for aircraft procurements, you see several big programs that are all, in theory, going to be in full-rate production at the same time in the 2020s. The tanker will be in full-rate production, the bomber will be ramping up to full-rate production and the JSF will still be in full-rate production. I don’t see how the Air Force can handle, budget-wise, all of those programs being at full-rate production at the same time even at current projections — even if the budget’s not cut, even if it’s allowed to grow, I don’t see how they can handle all three of those programs at the same time.

If we have substantial cuts in defense spending by 2020 then I think it is nearly impossible, unless we’re willing to make major sacrifices in other parts of the procurement budget.

So, with the F-35 and KC-46 already on contract that leaves the bomber as the odd man out. Outgoing vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Gen. James Cartwright is already pushing for a scaled down version of the fancy but supposedly cost-effective bomber (if not scrapping it entirely). Who knows what the next crop of Pentagon leaders will think of the recently revived program as they make budget choices in the coming years.

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