A new F-16 life extension, bomber and space-procurement plan will be included in the U.S. Air Force’s forthcoming Fiscal 2012 budget proposal.

These efforts are possible during a time of belt-tightening because the service found $34 billion worth of projects to cut in order to fund higher-priority initiatives, says Air Force Secretary Michael Donley.

Absent from Donley’s comments last week was mention of the budding effort to buy a new fast-jet trainer (Alenia, BAE and Lockheed Martin/Korea Aerospace Industries are poised to compete for this) as well as a replacement for aging Bell Helicopter UH-1Ns supporting nuclear convoys and executive lift. Their omission from his remarks indicates they are likely lower priorities.

Some of the new programs are an attempt to stave off a decline in capabilities brought on by yet another delay to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and a 124-aircraft cut in the buy (AW&ST Jan. 10, p. 24). Improvements are needed for the Lockheed Martin F-16 and Boeing F-15 fleets to keep them viable while Lockheed works through testing problems and produces the JSF at a slower than predicted rate. As of last year, Air Force officials said their fighter shortfall reaching out to 2024 would be 185 aircraft—down from a predicted 800-fighter shortage a year earlier—because the service opted to allow more risk into its war planning.

The gap estimate of 185 units, however, was predicated upon buying 80 F-35s annually at full-rate production beginning in Fiscal 2016; with the F-35 acquisition slipping, reaching full-rate production will take longer and the fighter shortfall could grow.

The Air Force recently retired roughly 250 fighters, 129 of which are old F-16s, as part of a force-reduction strategy designed to save money.

Service officials have studied what work might be required to extend the lives of up to 1,021 F-16C/Ds in the fleet today. The Air Force is crafting a path forward for an F-16 service-life extension (SLEP). “As we consider the impact of this conservative approach to Joint Strike Fighter . . . we anticipated we would need to take a look at F-16 SLEPs,” Donley says. “That question is more ‘how much and when and what kind,’ rather than an ‘if.’”

Last year, USAF Lt. Gen. Philip Breedlove, then-deputy chief of staff for operations, said that to extend the lives of about 300 F-16s with digital radio-frequency memory equipment; new active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radars; and improved structures would cost about $9.7 million per aircraft. This would extend platform life to 2020; the average age of the fleet is 20 years, says Mark Vania, F-16 program manager at Air Combat Command. A company has not yet been selected for the upgrade program or radar modification.

Donley says final details of how many F-16s will be upgraded, and with what equipment, are to come with the budget release.

The service also plans to accelerate installation of Raytheon AESA radars on the F-15C/E fleet. Completion of work on the C will move up by one year, and the E installations will be advanced by eight years to 2024. The AESA radars will allow the F-15s and F-16s to detect smaller, slower targets from longer ranges.

Donley says funding will be reallocated in the budget request to buy 16 F-35 simulators for pilot training. It could take the aircraft a year beyond the current plan to reach Eglin AFB, Fla., where the pilot and maintainer training unit is located. Moreover, the aircraft’s ability to contribute to meaningful pilot training will rely on how quickly the test program can expand the flight envelope in all three variants. It’s possible that the training unit will use the aircraft first for maintainer training.

Donley notes that more progress is needed in software and testing for all three F-35 variants. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has slipped the conclusion of flight testing from mid-2015 to the end of the first quarter of 2016, and the department has “taken an even more conservative approach to production rates as we go forward,” says Donley.

The Air Force is the lead customer for the conventional F-35A and last year slipped its initial operational capability date to 2016 from 2014. Donley says it’s “implied” by the new development schedule that the in-service date will shift further.

Meanwhile, Donley is revealing a few details about the long-awaited Air Force program for a long-range, penetrating bomber. The on-again, off-again effort finally received a strong endorsement earlier this month from Gates, who notes that the bomber should be optionally manned.

Those who had pushed against adding unmanned controls argued that a nuclear platform must have a pilot on board. Donley, however, advocates a shift in thinking about the bomber.

Though the aircraft must be “nuclear-certified,” he says industry should not assume that the platform will support the nuclear mission immediately. “We are really making a shift here from designing bombers for the nuclear mission and having them have conventional capability. That shift now has been reversed,” he says. “We are looking at long-term force structure and long-range strike capabilities that we are assuming are going to be used on the conventional side, because that is how they have been used.”

The Air Force’s approach must be conservative to produce a platform on a set schedule and in the quantities needed; this likely translates to using technologies that are already mature, rather than funding cutting-edge development work. Donley declined to identify that schedule or the desired number of aircraft. In a program started a few years ago, officials notionally discussed 100 aircraft.

“In contrast to the program canceled in 2009, . . . development of this new bomber will leverage more mature technologies and, we think, will reduce risk in the program and allow us to deliver with greater confidence on the schedule and in quantifies sufficient to support the long-term sustainment of bomber capabilities after the current fleets of B-1s and B-52s continue to retire,” Donley told an audience in Washington hosted by the Air Force Association. “We’ll constrain the requirements for this platform, and there is certainly more emphasis on affordability.”

Likely prime competitors for this work are Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

As for the notoriously ill-managed military space program, smoother funding is also a priority. In the forthcoming budget, the Air Force plans to request money for five Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) annually made by United Launch Alliance; this represents the number needed by the service, NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office.

The goal is to stabilize the buy and provide the industrial base a more predictable demand from the customer. The Fiscal 2010-11 budgets asked for three of the EELVs. The five-per-year rate is the minimum requirement for EELV production capability across the government, as validated by a Broad Area Review conducted by USAF Gen. (ret.) Larry Welch last year.

Finally, the service also plans to begin “block buys” of satellites “even when they may be only as small as two,” Donley says (AW&ST Dec. 13, p. 30). This is intended to stabilize satellite funding, which has suffered from fits and starts during the past decade. The first program to undergo this block-buy approach will be the Lockheed Martin Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) system, “Our challenge in the satellite world is that we have been waiting until the last minute to produce a new generation of satellites,” Donley says. “In a way, that has cost us tremendously.”