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Tue, Aug 05, 2008

USAF Nominee Wants F-35s, And He Wants Them Now

But Where Will The Money Come From?

Hoping to build momentum for the proposal ahead of a new presidential administration, last week President Bush's nominee for Chief of Staff of the US Air Force surprised lawmakers with the announcement he had been given approval to plan for more purchases of the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet between 2010 and 2015.

The Associated Press reports General Norton Schwartz's statements before the Senate Armed Services Committee also confounded some in the US Air Force. Many don't expect the bold plan to really go anywhere, since a new president will enter office in January 2009 with his own set of budgetary priorities... which may or may not include spending more capital on advanced fighter jets.

Current plans call for the Air Force to take delivery of 24 planes in 2011, with increases to 42 and 48 in 2012 and 2013.... but Schwartz said those numbers could surge to as many as 110 deliveries annually by the middle of the next decade. Defense analyst Loren Thompson says he's heard similar musings from the Office of Management and Budget.

"I’ve been told by people who deal with OMB that it supports a plan to recommend $57 billion in defense budget increases for 2010" and beyond, said Thompson. Much of that money would be used to replace worn out equipment, Thompson says, and to counteract rising fuel costs.

In addition to his role as COO for the Lexington Institute, Thompson also serves as a consultant to Lockheed Martin, manufacturer of the F-35. Lockheed's program manager for the advanced multi-role jet, Dan Crowley, compares the current situation to one faced by Lockheed some 30 years ago, when the company rolled out its F-16.

"We think they will add some aircraft in 2011," Crowley said. "People forget that we had a similar or greater ramp on the F-16."

The Pentagon is currently hashing out its long-range budget exercise, which will forecast desired spending levels for a six-year period starting in 2010. Those numbers, by definition, aren't set in stone; analyst Steve Kosiak, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment in Washington, says the plan "is to some extent a real plan... and to some extent it’s a Pentagon wish list."

Wish list or no, one question left unanswered by everyone concerned is where the Pentagon expects to find the money for all those extra planes. Even if the lame duck Bush administration does hash out a new budget before January, the incoming president is likely to make significant changes to the plan.

"The fact a different administration would have to decide on spending the money and the fact we are facing a budget deficit of $500 billion makes any increase problematic," Thompson admits.



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