WASHINGTON: Frank Kendall signaled in December that the F-35 was no longer immune from budget cuts and it looks as if he knew what he was talking about.
The story out this afternoon is that five Air Force F-35As will be cut from the fiscal 2017 budget request. Mackenzie Eaglen said at a Brookings Institution event Monday that the F-35 program was simply the biggest source of cash in the room and should be cut to help fund the Navy’s beefed-uo presence in the Pacific. Since the Marines will deploy their first F-35B squadron to Iwakuni, Japan early next year, it may be that the Pentagon leadership made the decision that air assets in the Pacific were substantive enough to trim the Air Force buy for balance.
Colleague Sara Seligman at Defense News is reporting — from one source, so exercise caution — that the Air Force will request 43 F-35As, down from the previously planned 48. The Air Force had planned to boost its purchases to 60 in 2018. J.J. Gertler, aviation expert at the Congressional Research Service, estimates that trimming that buy to a steady 48 would save $1 billion a year.
But this cut is not happening in a vacuum. A senior defense official told us last week that the Navy will accelerate its purchases of F-35Cs in 2017, so it’s unclear what effect the Air Force decision will have on Lockheed Martin’s overall production numbers.
The Navy planned to buy four F-35Cs, designed to take off and land from aircraft carriers, in 2017, with that doubling to eight the next year. If the Navy pulls forward three or four of the Cs, we’re back pretty much to where we were in terms of numbers. The Navy and Marine versions are more expensive than the F-35As so it’s unlikely we’ll see that much of an increase — presuming the cut was driven by money.
The odds of the cut being driven by money are pretty good. After all, the Pentagon won’t have $10 billion to $15 billion for modernization that it says it needs in 2017. But budgets are awfully complicated.