U.S. Navy Budget Takes Bite Out Of Aircraft, Weapons

(DEFENSE NEWS 04 MAR 14) … Christopher P. Cavas

WASHINGTON – Most of the U.S. Navy’s aviation programs take significant hits in the 2015 budget, including the P-8A Poseidon, F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, and MH-60R helicopter, and plans to buy the MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned shipboard aircraft have been shelved for now.

The budget also takes a big bite out of weapons procurement, notably the elimination of Tactical Tomahawk cruise missile procurement after this year.

Shipbuilding buys were only slightly reduced, with one Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) being taken out of the budget as the buying plan shifts from either four or two ships per year to three.

Several key decisions affecting the budget have yet to be made, most notably the question of eliminating an aircraft carrier and a carrier air wing, a judgment being left to next year. Decisions of how to handle the temporary reduction of 11 cruisers and three amphibious ships also have yet to be signed off on, and the Navy has yet to explain its new process for counting Battle Force ships, which affects fleet size.

It is also not clear what sort of aircraft and weapon requests will appear in the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) request, the supplemental war funding bill to be submitted later this year, nor in the $26 billion Opportunity Growth and Security Initiative, a list of unfunded programs the Obama administration will submit to Congress.

The OCO request “will include readiness funding to improve these metrics,” said Rear Adm. William Lescher, the Navy’s budget director, at a Tuesday Pentagon press conference to discuss the budget.

Overall, the Navy’s $148 billion topline base budget request is $7.8 billion below last year’s figure of $155.8 billion.

Procurement drops $5.1 billion to $38.4 billion; operations and maintenance down $1.7 billion to $46.8 billion; military personnel spending down $400 million to $45 billion; infrastructure down $800 million – nearly a quarter – to $1.5 billion. Only research and development funding showed an increase, up $300 million to $16.3 billion, driven by a $400 million increase in system development and demonstration funding, a category that includes the new executive helicopter program.

The Navy is asking for $3.5 billion less in shipbuilding funds, dropping from last year’s $17.9 billion to $14.4 billion. New aircraft funding drops $1.2 billion to $13.1 billion; weapons procurement is up $100 million to $3.2 billion; ammunition rises $200 million to $800 million; Marine Corps procurement drops $300 million to $1 billion.

Active-duty Marine Corps personnel strength is reduced from 190,200 to 182,700, a planned reduction. Navy active-duty personnel hold at 323,600, with a reduction of 1,800 in Reserve end strength.

Readiness accounts hold mostly steady or show slight increases, but base support funding drops $700 million.

The shipbuilding program continues with two submarines and two destroyers per year. Details of the switch from four or two ships per year to three in the LCS program, Lescher said, still are being worked out – reflective of the top-level Pentagon decision taken only weeks ago to cap buys of current LCS designs at 32 ships and examine an alternative design or modifications the two existing designs.

Plans to begin procurement of Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyers fitted with the new air missile defense radar in 2016 remain in place, Lescher said, holding to previous schemes. The LHA(R) big-deck assault ship remains in 2017, but the LX(R) amphibious ship has been pushed back a year, from 2019 to 2020. The new T-AO(X) fleet oiler replacement also remains in 2016.

A fifth Mobile Landing Platform/Afloat Staging Ship has been added to the overall plan, appearing in 2017.

The Navy increased buys of the Ship-To-Shore connector, a replacement for existing LCAC air-cushioned landing craft, asking for 31 ships through 2019, up from last year’s 17 over 2015-2018.

The aircraft accounts show more severe reductions. While procurement of the short-takeoff or vertical launch F-35B Joint Strike Fighter for the Marine Corps holds at previous levels, buys for the F-35C carrier variant were slashed, dropping from last year’s plan to buy 49 from 2015 to 2018 to 20.

Buys of the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye dropped only slightly, but the P-8A Poseidon multi-mission maritime aircraft fell from 56 in 2015-2018 to 49.

MV-22 Osprey tilt rotor buys hold steady, but last year’s plan to buy 29 MH-60R helicopters each in 2015 and 2016 saw all of 2016’s aircraft eliminated.

Procurement of the MQ-4 Triton broad-area maritime surveillance unmanned aircraft was pushed back a year “to account for a delay in development,” Lescher said. Buys of 17 MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopters – a mainstay of the LCS program – were stricken.

“The department is very committed to unmanned aircraft,” Lescher said when asked about the Fire Scouts. “In prior years there was a thought the aircraft would be used for special operations forces,” he added, but now, through the global force management system, those needs will be filled by aircraft operating from nearby LCSs.

Weapons procurement showed striking reductions from last year’s plans. Then, the Navy planned to buy 980 Tactical Tomahawks, the primary cruise missile in use throughout the fleet. The new plan shows only 100 missiles in 2015 and none thereafter.

The reduction reflects shifting investment to a new next-generation land attack weapon, said Lt. Caroline Hutcheson, a Navy spokeswoman at the Pentagon, who also noted that the current inventory of Block IV Tactical Tomahawks exceeds combat requirements. A recertification line for existing missiles will be established to retain effectiveness of current TacToms, she added.

Buys of Standard SM-6, Rolling Airframe and Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles, as well as the Mk 48 heavyweight torpedo and Mk 54 lightweight torpedo were also reduced, and procurement of the advanced medium-range air-to-air missile is suspended in 2015. Purchases of the Hellfire air-to-ground missile and the advanced JSOW-C version of the Joint Standoff Weapon were dramatically reduced – Hellfire from 1,519 from 2015-2018 to zero; JSOW-C from 1,799 over the same period to 400.

Appearing for the first time in the near-term budget, however, is the LCS Surface-to-Surface Missile Module, a sorely-needed effort to develop a new missile for the littoral ships.

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