Max Beerbohm (1872-1956), an English critic and essayist, once said, “All fantasy should have a solid base in reality.” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ defense budget proposal suggests that he heard what Beerbohm said years ago, and he has decided what he thinks is fantasy and what is reality. (For the full version of Gates’ proposal, go to www.defenselink.mil/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1341.) There are numerous analyses of this proposal on the Internet explaining which military services gained, and which lost. From my perspective, I will take a look at VITA’s technologies and how this budget will affect sales of VME and VPX. [Editor’s note: Also see Chris Ciufo’s analysis of Gates’ budget in the April print edition of VME and Critical Systems or online at www.vmecritical.com/articles/id/?3879.]
Before this budget was proposed by Gates, I would have said that VPX sales were 60 percent (for new design-ins and new platforms) with 40 percent to VME (technology insertion refreshes on existing platforms and a few new design-ins on new platforms). This 60:40 ratio was based heavily on the Future Combat Systems (FCS) vehicle programs as the primary new platform design-ins for VPX. Most of the work in the VITA Standards Organization (VSO) during the past year or so has been targeted at mil/aero applications, which have much tougher environmental specifications. That was the second largest target for VPX, until now.
The big fly in the ointment of Gates’ proposal, for people in this industry, is the termination of the FCS vehicle program. There are too many vehicles involved, their missions are not clear, their requirements are fuzzy, and there is too much feature creep in the programs. If you look at the Mine Resistant/Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle, it has shown the fewest incidents of injury and death associated with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) – even those nasty-shaped charge IEDs designed to penetrate armor. However, the MRAP resembles a concrete truck: It is very fuel inefficient, and it is top heavy. It tends to tip over on the primitive roads in Iraq.
Gates also says he is not happy with the present contract conditions for the FCS vehicle program. While we could surely revise and refocus the mission requirements quickly, I think the real bees in his bonnet are the present contracts. So, he wants to terminate it for now, go back through all the mission requirements and technologies, and crank it up again later on. That, in my opinion, moves the ratio to 60 percent VME and 40 percent VPX if this proposal goes through Congress unscathed (which is highly unlikely). Even without the FCS vehicle program, most analysts say that the U.S. Army gets the better part of the deal in this proposed budget.
The U.S. Air Force took a beating in Gates’ proposal. The F-22 fighter plans stop at 187 planes, and we crank up production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). We cannot sell the F-22 to allies or others because it is so advanced. So, I guess the F-35 is a dumbed-down version that we can sell to others without giving away the crown jewels. The long-range bomber program is dropped, and the missile defense program is dropped (and emphasis put on small-theater missile defense). The AirBorne Laser (ABL) platform program has been cancelled and turned into an R&D lab. So, we are out of the death-ray business for a while. But, we will go forward with the new KC-X tanker program (to replace the aging Boeing 707 platforms in the KC-135 tankers).
The U.S. Navy also took a beating here and there. Aircraft carrier production is stretched out over five-year build cycles. The CG-X next-generation cruiser is cancelled until better studies are done. The new DDG-1000 destroyer program could stop at one or three new boats, and then crank up the old DDG-51 class boats for new production, depending on how the shipyards react. The U.S. Navy will get some new Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and outfit the Ohio-class boomer-subs for some new missions. Thus, they did not get hit as hard as the U.S. Air Force.
We already have the contracts issued for the Block III upgrades for 300-plus Apache helicopters. The Kiowa Warrior helicopter will probably come after that, 375 units. This budget proposes at least 50 new Predator UAVs, and the U.S. Navy has two UAV platforms for carrier-based operations that will go forward. With the increase in F-35 production, it is clear that aerospace platforms won in this budget and that the VSO’s work and focus is on track. Some of this is VME and some is VPX. The shifting emphasis from ground vehicles to aerospace platforms in the document causes me to make the 60:40 to 40:60 shift in VPX and VME sales in the coming years.
Another bright spot in this proposal is the $2 billion budget for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions. We all know that ISR is electronics-based, but since that is an ITAR topic, I cannot talk about which platforms use which technologies. I can say that our industry and VITA’s members will benefit from that sharp increase, as they will from the increase in the aerospace platform budgets.
So, some of the new administration’s recent actions show that we are radically shifting away from the previous administration’s military policies. Apparently, the worm has turned and is reflected in this new budget proposal. Whether this new approach will work any better than the previous administration’s policies is yet to be seen. But I am reassured that VME- and VPX-based offensive military systems will be ready whenever we need to use them.