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In matters of defense aerospace, 2011 will be remembered as a year in which vital decisions about acquisition, policy, and future force levels were deferred. The lack of decision-making was, with some exceptions, a phenomenon around the globe – nowhere more so than in the United States.

At the end of 2011 the U.S. congressional “supercommittee” failed to reach an agreement on deficit reduction. In the balance for the defense establishment are $600 billion in across-the-board military spending cuts triggered by a mechanism called “sequestration.”

Royal Air Force Typhoon

A Royal Air Force Typhoon during an Operation Unified Protector mission carries laser-guided bombs as it prepares to refuel from a tanker. Eurofighter photo

On the day the supercommittee announced that no agreement would be reached (Nov. 21), President Barack Obama responded by declaring that he would veto any measure to prevent the sequestration cuts, pressuring Congress to seek alternatives. However, the cuts would not take effect until January 2013, leaving a year (and an election) for the legislature to try again to craft a plan. Beyond the $450 billion over 10 years the administration has already pledged to cut, any decision about the next decade’s worth of military spending is thus on hold.

On hold though it may be, and unlikely though the additional $600 billion worth of cuts may be, American defense aerospace officials will have to craft a plan to deal with roughly $1 trillion in cuts. The result would be forces with fewer personnel, less equipment, narrowed modernization investment, and less acquisition.

A week before the committee’s failure, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said, “Rough estimates suggest after 10 years of these cuts we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history.”

Seeking to pre-empt speculation about which programs might be axed, Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley told an Air Force Association gathering the week before the budget committee announcement that core missions and capabilities in nine key areas would be protected from wholesale reductions.

F-35B USS Wasp

F-35B ship suitability testing aboard the USS Wasp (LHD 1) in October 2011. Lockheed Martin photo

The F-35, KC-46A tanker, and “Long Range Strike Family of Systems including the new bomber” would be given priority. Likewise, continued development of unmanned systems, maintenance of overseas forward presence, modification of space communications/missile warning systems, maintenance of nuclear capability, special operations forces, and improved cyber warfare capability would be sheltered.

Donley stressed that the Air Force would continue to support its personnel, “But with 35 to 40 percent of the budget committed to personnel costs, everything needs to be on the table.”

Perhaps the first obvious casualty of the budget uncertainty is Hawker Beechcraft’s AT-6, which the Air Force decided to drop from the Light Air Support (LAS) competition where it was vying with Embraer’s Super Tucano, which was later declared the winner. Hawker-Beechcraft protested, and then filed suit.

Protected though the Air Force may consider it, the F-35 came in for considerable scrutiny in 2011. After being restructured in late 2010 and early 2011, the F-35 test program was extended by two years to provide additional margin for discoveries and to re-fly test points. An in-flight dual generator failure briefly halted testing in March, but by April, the Navy’s F-35C prototypes joined the program, progressing to ground-based catapult testing by mid-summer. Meanwhile, the Air Force formally accepted its first production F-35A (AF-7) on May 6, though the fighter’s full service entry had slipped to 2018.

Sustainment cost questions dogged the program in June, with JSF international partners and other potential customers rattled by an estimated $1 trillion long-term bill for operations and maintenance. Lockheed Martin disputed that figure, saying that the F-35 will be less expensive to maintain than legacy fleets.

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Eric Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...