The apparent greater focus on shipbuilding accounts — compared to aviation spending — during discussions on where to find cuts in overall U.S. Navy spending makes sense, defense analysts say, even though the service has historically spent roughly equal amounts on both, according to an Aviation Week Intelligence Network (AWIN) analysis.
Between 1998 and 2009, the Navy spent about $72.8 billion on shipbuilding-related expenses and another $68 billion on aviation-related costs, according to an AWIN analysis of contracts and contract modifications of the leading 20 Navy expenses, based on data aggregated by the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting. (See chart below.)
But most of the recent chatter among Navy leaders and defense analysts has been about cutting or delaying major ship programs, with a notable lack of discussion about aviation expenses.
“Budgeteers favor raiding shipbuilding accounts because you can save over a billion dollars by delaying just one warship,” says Loren Thompson, Lexington Institute analyst.
“When it comes to aircraft, you have to restructure a whole program to get those kinds of savings.”
That said, Navy and Pentagon budget cutters have not completely ignored aviation programs, Thompson notes. “Naval aviation has already been cut by stretching out buys of programs like&C and ,” he says, “For example, purchase of attrition aircraft in the V-22 Osprey program was delayed to beyond the end of the five-year spending plan to save money in the near term.”
Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group consultancy, says aviation accounts will likely fare better in the tighter-budget climate, especially as the Navy and U.S.try to bolster fleets that were ravaged by recent conflicts.
“Marine aircraft have been used particularly hard,” Aboulafia says, adding, “I’m a little more confident about fighter aircraft [surviving tighter budgets].”
One of the reasons Aboulafia says the aviation accounts may stay intact is that it is more difficult to get aircraft off the ground in poor shape than it is to put ships to sea in similar conditions.
“Airworthiness is a lot different than seaworthiness,” he says. “With ships, you can fake it. With aircraft you can’t.”
Still, while the Navy has spent slightly more on ships than on aviation in the past, aircraft accounts still make an enticing target for budget cuts. The two largest single-expense items during the time period of the AWIN analysis were both aviation-related: fixed-wing expenses, mostly from F-35 transactions, and operational systems development for defense aircraft, which combined accounted for about $56.4 billion.