Pentagon mulls funding for cutting-edge rotorcraft
WASHINGTON, Sept 4 (Reuters) - The Pentagon's chief weapons buyer said he was considering funding early work on a next-generation rotorcraft, citing concerns that budget cuts could erode the United States' high-technology edge.
In order to fund work on technology for new rotorcraft, Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said on Wednesday he would have to waive rules that ban the start of new weapons programs whose production could not be supported by current funding levels.
Kendall also told the ComDef industry conference in Washington he had already taken steps to kick off a separate program funding early work on a successor to the F-35 fighter, now being developed and built by Lockheed Martin Corp, that would ensure continued air dominance by the U.S. military.
That program would fund studies for several years, followed by possible development of a prototype, he told reporters after a speech in which he warned that other countries would soon overtake the United States in development of certain weapons.
"Our technological superiority is not assured at all. It is being challenged," Kendall told the conference, noting the Pentagon's procurement and research and development programs would be disproportionately hard hit by budget cuts since it was harder and took longer to cut funding for personnel.
"It's possible that we could do something else in the non-fixed wing. We haven't done a new cutting-edge design rotorcraft in some time," Kendall told reporters, citing some nascent initiatives by industry, without giving specific examples.
Companies like Boeing Co ; Bell Helicopter, a unit of Textron Inc ; Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp ; Europe's EADS ; and AgustaWestland, a unit of Italy's Finmeccanica, have been pressing U.S. defense officials to at least fund some design work on new rotorcraft programs.
But he added that it was difficult to earmark funding for future technology programs at a time when the Pentagon is facing $500 billion in spending cuts over the next decade, on top of $487 billion in cuts already planned.
"It's going to be very, very hard to squeeze into the budget right now," he said.
Defense consultant Loren Thompson with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute said the Pentagon realized that maintaining spending on research and development of new weapons was crucial to ensuring that the military was adequately equipped in later years.
"Unless spending on military aircraft is maintained, the supplier base will wither and the skills needed for development of the next generation of planes will disappear," Thompson said.
Kendall first mentioned concern about the lack of new rotorcraft development programs at an investor conference last December.
Budget gridlock in Congress and mounting pressure on weapons programs have limited the number of new acquisition programs begun in recent years, which industry executives say could erode their design teams.
Kendall said the Pentagon had undertaken similar efforts to continue funding work on new weapons during previous downturns.
For instance, funding for the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 fighter programs began during the 1970s despite a decline in military spending, and then rose in the 1980s as defense spending increased again. Similarly for the Army's Apache helicopter, built by Boeing, and the Aegis combat system, built by Lockheed, Kendall said.
Results were mixed with programs begun during the 1990s downturn: the Lockheed F-22 fighter survived but the Sea Wolf submarine saw only very limited production.