During a media availability in Hawaii on Nov. 12, 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta was asked for his thoughts on the threat of sequestration to U.S. defense and the possibility that if no agreement was reached to avoid the automatic cuts in spending it requires, the measure could be “kicked down the road.”
“If they just kick the can down the road, it’ll just continue to represent a cloud over the Defense Department [DoD],” Panetta said. “And that’s the last damn thing I need right now is to have more uncertainty.”
His remarks echoed the concern of the entire American defense establishment and followed warnings issued previously by the secretary and others that the effect of the sequester (the $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over 10 years dictated by the 2011 Budget Control Act should Congress and the White House fail to agree on deficit reduction) would be to “hollow out the force.”
As Panetta feared, sequestration was delayed until late March with no agreement reached, and the prospect of an additional $500 billion across-the-board deduction over 10 years on top of the $487 billion shaved from the Pentagon budget as 2012 began cast a pall over the aerospace defense industry in the United States and reverberated worldwide.
Even if a budget deal were to be reached, American defense companies were reportedly preparing for a $25 billion cut per year from current spending levels as 2012 drew to a close. [A budget deal, of course, was not reached, and as of this date the sequester continues. – Ed.]
In Europe, the ongoing sovereign debt crisis continues to gut defense spending. Military expenditures now hover around just 2 percent of GDP for even the largest European economies. A 2012 study, “NATO and the Challenges of Austerity,” executed by the RAND Corporation for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) concludes that planned defense budget cuts over the next decade for the seven European members of NATO “will have a serious impact on NATO’s ability to deploy and sustain military power.”
Meanwhile, defense spending in Asia remained strong despite economic headwinds. According to a 2012 study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, military expenditures have doubled in Asia over the last decade, with spending increasing most rapidly over the last five years. Expenditures in the region totaled $224 billion in 2011. China, Japan, India, South Korea, and Taiwan accounted for 87 percent of all expenditures, with China the top defense spender since 2005, when it overtook Japan.
Still, the Asian appetite for spending in aerospace defense isn’t limited to new aircraft programs. The same holds true in Latin America where, notwithstanding the growth of economies like those in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, modernization programs among the region’s air forces went beyond new aircraft buys
Back in the United States, the DoD’s 2013 budget request came under heavy scrutiny in June, with congressional committees introducing bills challenging some of the proposed cuts.
“Some of the bills seek to reverse the decisions to eliminate aging and lower-priority ships and aircraft,” Panetta observed. “My concern is that if these decisions are totally reversed, then I’ve got to find money somewhere … to maintain this old stuff.”
In one thought, Panetta summed up a trend already well under way globally: the maintenance and upgrade of aging aerospace platforms. Faced with cancellations of many new aircraft programs with the prospect of more to come, air forces around the globe are holding onto legacy aircraft, turning to industry to regenerate, refurbish, and modernize their aging fleets.
The largest global fighter upgrade programs are under way in the United States. Chief among these is the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) $2.8 billion upgrade program for more than 300 F-16C/Ds (Block 40, 42, 50, and 52 machines). First announced in the fall of 2011, the latest F-16 modernization program is an interim measure to mitigate the “fighter gap” brought on by ongoing delays with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
In response, the Air Force crafted a dual-purpose update to allow the Fighting Falcon, more popularly known as the Viper, to serve into the mid-2020s. Under a sole-source contract planned to begin in 2018, Lockheed Martin will embark on a service life extension program (SLEP) aimed at extending the Viper’s airframe life (currently 8,000 hours) by 2,000 to 4,000 additional hours and a combat avionics update known as “CAPES, for Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite.”
Fatigue tests are already under way to determine what improvements F-16 airframes will need to achieve the desired SLEP. Meanwhile, CAPES improvements will include new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, a new Terma ALQ-213 electronic warfare system, an integrated broadcast system (IBS), and a new center display unit (CDU).
The USAF F-15 fleet is due for similar upgrades expected to keep the fleet flying through at least 2035. The latest planned updates to F-15Cs and F-15E Strike Eagles include new radars, radios, and helmets, and structural integrity tests to inform efforts aimed at almost doubling the service life of the aircraft.
Air superiority Eagles will get a new AESA radar for 150 of the 214 F-15C models, beyond-line-of-sight and secure line-of-sight radio updates, and also Sniper advanced targeting pod integration on 177 Cs through fiscal 2016.