The co-chairmen of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform issued today a series of draft proposals to cut government spending. In the defense arena, they took a bold stand on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, particularly the Marine Corps's F-35B variant. Their recommendations might be a shock to Lockheed Martin and some within the Defense Department.
These are, however, just proposals and do not have the force of law whatsoever. It will be up to the Congress and the executive branch in terms of how to proceed, if at all. How much the White House-created Commission decides to advocate for specific proposals is an open question as well. That said, these proposals could potentially have some intellectual and political force given they come a week after elections swept into power a wave of lawmakers who campaigned on cutting government spending.
Also, "it remains to be seen how much of the co-chairmen's plan makes it into a final set of commission recommendations due December 1," according to Defense News.
Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the co-chairmen, wrote in their list of "Illustrative Savings":
Cancel the Marine Corps version of the F-35. This option would cancel the Marine Corps version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter because of its technical problems, cost overruns, schedule delays, and the adoption by the services of joint combat support in current wartime operations. This would save $3.9 billion in FY2015 and $17.6 billion for FY2012 - FY2015. At a total cost of $41 billion, DOD plans to buy 311 F-35Bs for the Marine Corps to replace the Marine Corps AV-8B. In its recent defense review, the United Kingdom decided to cancel its buy of the Marine Corps version of the JSF. Further, the sophisticated capabilities of the JSF may be less relevant in current scenarios. Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Workman observed that greater use of guided missiles and mortar could end the forward operations that would be performed by the Marine Corps JSF because of vulnerability. Also, because the Marine Corps version of the JSF has been responsible for most of the technical, cost, and schedule problems, cancelling it could accelerate delivery of the Air Force (F- 35A) and Navy (F-35C) versions.
They also proposed:
Substitute F-16 and F/A-18Es for half of the Air Force and Navy’s planned buys of F-35 fighter aircraft. With a planned total buy of 2,443 aircraft, the F-35 or Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is the Defense Department’s largest weapon procurement program. This option would buy half as many as the 369 planned for the Air Force and the 311 for the Navy, purchasing instead the current generation fighter aircraft, the Air Force F-16 aircraft at one-third of the cost and the Navy F/A- 18E/F at two-thirds of the cost of the F-35. The unit cost of F-35 aircraft is estimated at about $133 million compared to $40 million for an F-16 and $80 million for an F-18E. The rationale for this change would be that DOD does not need an entire fleet with the stealthy capabilities of the JSF, and could rely instead on upgraded F-16 and F/A-18E aircraft for half of their fleet, a “high-low” mix. This is estimated to save $2.3 billion in FY2015, and a total of $9.5 billion for FY2011-FY2015. The option might also allow the services to upgrade their tactical air fleets sooner in case the F-35 is delayed because of additional technical problems, since the F-16 and F-18E lines are currently open. In 2009, CBO described a similar option that would have cancelled the F-35 program altogether.
The two JSF proposals alone would together save over $27 billion from now through FY2015, according to the estimates cited in the co-chairmen's list.
These proposals "represent another setback for the STOVL fighter," wrote Aviation Week editor Bill Sweetman on the Ares blog today, referring to the F-35B. STOVL stands for short take-off and vertical landing.
The co-chairmen also propose canceling the new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), the Ground Combat Vehicle, the Joint Tactical Radio, the V-22 and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.
Taken together, the Marine Corps seem to have been hit the hardest with proposed cuts: notably the F-35B, the V-22, and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. It's no wonder why: All of these weapons are extremely complicated programs, with numerous technical challenges that have driven up costs and stretched out schedules. The Marines wants a jet plane that can take off like a helicopter (the F-35B), an armored ground vehicle that can float like a boat (the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle), and another aircraft that can take off like a copter and fly like a plane (the V-22).
Although the popular and largely true image of the austere Martine Corps doesn't seem compatible with these kinds of exquisite weapons, the Corps is trying to meet the demands of a difficult set of missions, including assault from the sea against a well-defended land-based adversary. Sweetman at Aviation Week has taken a look at some of these issues as they relate to the F-35B.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered a review of the Marine Corps' force structure, expected to be completed in December.
-- Nick Schwellenbach