Air Force eyes summer tanker decision; budgets $12B for controversial program

Pentagon and Air Force officials expect to award a contract for the new refueling tanker this summer and are allocating $12 billion to pay for the controversial program over the next five fiscal years.

Maj. Gen. Alfred Flowers, the Air Force’s budget official, said the Air Force will issue the final request for bids in February.

The Air Force’s efforts to replace its Eisenhower-era tanker fleet have been politically charged for years, and there is no guarantee that Congress won’t interject itself into the Pentagon’s decision, which could further delay the program.

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Boeing and a team of Northrop Grumman and EADS North America have been locked in an intense lobbying battle over the contract, which is worth at least $35 billion.

Separately, Defense Secretary Robert Gates signaled that the Pentagon is going after several other high-profile programs, continuing a battle that began in the first year of the Obama administration.

Gates on Monday vowed to recommend that President Barack Obama veto any bill that contains funding for an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and for the C-17 cargo aircraft.

Gates said that because of the overall cost of the F-35, it is important to take “a final stand” on the alternate engine for the JSF. This is the fifth straight year the Pentagon has not included funds for the alternative engine built by General Electric and Rolls-Royce.

“We remain hopeful because Congress has long recognized that the many arguments for a long-term JSF engine competition are simply too compelling,” officials from GE said in a statement.

Overall, the Air Force’s budget request makes up $119 billion of the Pentagon’s base budget request of $548.9 billion. The Pentagon is also requesting $159.3 billion for operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq for a total of $708.3 billion.

The White House said Monday that the Pentagon’s base budget for 2011 is 3.4 percent higher than the enacted defense budget for 2010.

The Air Force’s budget request for fiscal 2011 forecasts spending $864 million for the new tanker in that year; $1.2 billion in 2012; $2.9 billion in 2013; $3.6 billion in 2014; and $3.5 billion in 2015. The money goes toward both research and development and procurement of the new tanker, according to Air Force officials.

Apart from breathing new life into its much-needed aircraft refueling fleet, the Air Force is planning to invest more heavily in unmanned aerial vehicles. The breakdown between manned and unmanned planes is 52 unmanned aircraft to 97 manned, for a total of 149 aircraft in 2011. General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper is emerging as one of the winners in the Air Force’s budget request. What started as a congressional earmark, the Predator, is now one of the most popular items in the Air Force.

The MQ-9 Reaper is larger than the Predator, flies at high altitudes and is used for striking targets. The Air Force is requesting a total of 48 Reapers for fiscal 2011 (with 12 of them included in the overseas contingency funding request).

The Air Force is also requesting about $200 million in 2011 to invest in a new long-range strike capability. The Pentagon’s sweeping review of military strategy and capabilities — known as the Quadrennial Defense Review — which was released alongside the budget request, stresses the need for several types of long-range strike capabilities to counter threats to deployed U.S. forces and overseas bases.

But the blueprint indicates that the Pentagon is not setting aside plans to pursue a new manned bomber. The Pentagon plans to experiment with "conventional prompt global strike prototypes," according to the QDR.

Instead of requesting money for more Boeing C-17 cargo aircraft, the Air Force is instead allotting funds for the phased shutdown of the C-17 production line in Long Beach, Calif. In 2011, the Air Force is requesting $30 million; in 2012 it is planning on requesting $152 million, followed by $208 million in 2013 and $91 million in 2014.

Congress customarily adds more money for the popular aircraft, whose production has suppliers across the country and thousands of employees in congressional districts. For 2010, Congress added $2.5 billion for 10 more C-17s.

Gates also is moving the Pentagon responsibility and management for the F-35 program at the level of a three-star general. Gates is slated to announce the new program manager in a day or two, he said.

Gates also said the Pentagon is withholding $614 million in performance fees to F-35 contractor Lockheed Martin because of cost overruns and delays in the program.

“One cannot absorb the additional cost that we have in this program without people being held accountable," Gates said at a Pentagon press briefing.

“When things go wrong, people will be held accountable.”

The Pentagon is planning to buy three different variants of the F-35 JSF. Apart from the 23 planes slated for the Air Force, the Pentagon is buying 20 planes of the other variants.

According to a White House budget release, the elimination of the alternate engine program would save $465 million in fiscal 2011. This program “raises logistical, management and cost concerns,” said the White House release.

Several veteran lawmakers, including Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the top House defense appropriator, believe strongly in competition for the F-35 engine and so far have won in adding more money for the GE-Rolls-Royce project, which is in competition with primary engine maker, Pratt & Whitney. The Pratt & Whitney engine has the expressed confidence of Pentagon officials.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is planning to buy 22 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in 2011. Pentagon officials and contractors are working to keep down escalating costs for what is now the only new fighter jet program on the books, meant to replace a whole range of older fighter jets.

For more stories on the 2011 defense budget and requests by other military services, please visit www.thehill.com.