The U.S. Air Force is pursuing next-generation aircraft such as the F-35 fighter jet and new long-range bomber despite the threat of automatic budget cuts, the service's top civilian said.
The Air Force this year may buy as many as five fewer Lockheed Martin Corp.-made F-35As for a total of 15 aircraft rather than 19 because of automatic cuts, known as sequestration. It may be forced to make a similar move in fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1.
The service wants to award contracts to begin developing the so-called Long Range Strike Bomber in the next year or two, according to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley. But that program and others designed to upgrade its aging fleets of aircraft are threatened by the across-the-board spending reductions.
There will be "widespread changes" to modernization accounts if the budget cuts continue, Donley said during an April 24 breakfast with reporters.
The Defense Department faces $500 billion in automatic cuts over the next decade. That’s in addition to almost $500 billion in defense reductions already projected under 2011 deficit-reduction legislation. The first installment of automatic cuts began March 1 and sliced about $41 billion from the fiscal 2013 defense budget.
The Pentagon earlier this month unveiled a base budget of $527 billion for fiscal 2014, beginning Oct. 1. The figure doesn’t include the next round of reductions, which may total $51 billion and reduce spending to $476 billion, excluding war funding.
The Air Force doesn't know how much of that reduction it will have to absorb if Congress and the White House can't agree on an alternate plan to reduce the federal deficit, Donley said.
"There is no fixed or established share at this point," he said. "But we all realize there are significant adjustments that would have to be made."
The situation unnecessarily complicates the task of upgrading the service's aging fleets of aircraft, Donley said. From fighters and bombers to tankers and unmanned aircraft, "just about every mission area you can think of, weapons system you can think of, needs to be modernized," he said. "We actually are not able to do what we know needs to be done."
The new bomber, designed to replace a portion of the fleets of B-52 heavy bombers and B-2 stealth bombers, "remains one of our most important priorities," Donley said. The Air Force wants to build 80 to 100 of the aircraft, with the first expected to enter service in the mid-2020s, he said. Each plane is expected to cost about $550 million.
"We're still a year or two away from those what I would call the down-select decision," Donley said, referring to contract award. "We're stable in terms of how we're approaching this project. There have been no major changes in design or requirements."
The Air Force wants the bomber to carry nuclear weapons, fly farther with better fuel efficiency and employ a suite of advanced communications and radar systems to operate in contested airspace. It will eventually have the option to fly unmanned, like a drone.
Beyond that, many of the details of the program are unknown. A so-called initial capabilities document has been drafted for the bomber, the details of which are classified.
"We're going to protect the capabilities of this airplane, I think, several years down the road because we think the capabilities that it will have represent advantages not unlike those that we've enjoyed with the B-2 and we have not talked about B-2 capabilities in great depth," Donley said. "We did not reveal the existence of the B-2 program until it rolled out of a hangar. We're years from that."
Meantime, the operational costs of the F-35 are unlikely to affect how many of the aircraft the service intends to buy, Donley said.
The cost of flying the F-35 "will be slightly higher than the F-16, there's no doubt about that in my mind," he said. "I don't think there's a link there between projected operational costs and how many we're going to buy."