The Pentagon's long-term plan for aviation keeps its eye on recent strategic shifts while largely ignoring the budget situation.

Even as Congress wrestles with how to pare down the deficit, the Pentagon plans to spend $770 billion on aircraft purchases, operations, maintenance and related construction between fiscal 2013 and 2022, according to a report on the military's 30-year aviation plan sent to Congress in early April by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, calls the outlook in the aviation document “optimistic.”

The Pentagon's road map follows closely the strategic guidance outlined by the military early this year, which continues a focus on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

That includes the continuation of major spending on unmanned aircraft. The Defense Department intends to increase the size of its fleet by 45% to 645 aircraft by fiscal 2022, according to the report delivered to Congress. To meet the demand for ISR, the Air Force will purchase enhanced sensors and replace its General Atomics MQ-1 Predators with MQ-9 Reapers. By the end of fiscal 2014, the Air Force plans to establish 65 orbits. The target of 645 unmanned aircraft is down by five from last year's number, but still continues growth from the 445 airframes in fiscal 2013.

In addition to increasing the military's ISR capabilities, four additional investment priorities are noted: providing “enabler capacity” by investing in air mobility and electronic warfare (EW) aircraft, buying fifth-generation fighters while maintaining enough inventory, modernizing long-range strike, and emphasizing modernization and readiness.

As for enabler capacity, the Navy aims to recapitalize its EW aircraft, holding its fleet of Boeing EA-18G Growlers steady at 114.

Aerial refueling tankers will support the aviation “enabler” priority, according to the report. The Air Force plans to buy 83 Boeing KC-46As by 2022 and complete the entire purchase of 179 aircraft seven years later.

The composition of the Air Force's fighter fleet will change over the next decade, with F-35 Joint Strike Fighters comprising 25% of the force by fiscal 2022, rather than the current 7%.

Twenty years later, the military will have retired nearly all of the current force and will have started recapitalizing fifth- generation fighters, according to the report.

Aboulafia sees difficulty maintaining the fleet's size in the long term. The military will be able to manage over the next decade, using life-extension programs and upgrades to keep current platforms alive. But beyond those initial 10 years, “it's a recipe for a diminished superpower,” he asserts.

Given the number of airframes that will need to be retired, force structure will have to be significantly reduced, says Aboulafia. “You do it incrementally and hope that it will be below the political horizon,” he adds.

Whether any of these ambitions will be realized remains an annual guessing game. And staying away from the dynamics of near-term budgeting makes sense to some.

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, agrees, saying it is difficult “to incorporate current fiscal concerns when a few changes in the outlook could radically alter the outcome.”

For example, if Congress allows the Bush-era tax cuts to expire, about one-third of the federal deficit will disappear, and that could be compounded if automatic budget reductions put into law last summer take place. “What that means is you can't let 30-year plans be driven by the fiscal or the military concerns of the moment.”

However, the concerns of the moment are many, as Washington remains awash in speculation over how the budget for the next fiscal year will play.

Lawmakers and defense industry officials have expressed assurances that Congress will step in to rewrite a law passed last August to hand down an automatic budget cut of $1.2 trillion across the government before it takes effect in January 2013. But that conventional wisdom regarding the penalty known as sequestration appears to be changing.

Contractors are already seeing a slow-rolling of contractual commitments, Thompson says, adding that they are making contingency plans.

“There's no way that it won't take place,” says Gen. (ret.) Ronald Fogleman, former Air Force chief of staff, adding that because the fiscal year begins in October, the penalty of sequestration will impact fiscal 2013. And if Pentagon budgeters fail to plan for the possibility, “It's going to make the rest of the year all that much more difficult.”

Projected U.S. Military Aviation Inventory
Inventory FISCAL 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
Fighter/Attack 3,567 3,600 3,615 3,614 3,602 3,512 3,465 3,448 3,441 3,416
Attack Helicopter 882 860 882 886 906 881 906 918 957 966
Airlift/Cargo/Utility 4,459 4,556 4,590 4,581 4,528 4,533 4,552 4,605 4,598 4,589
Combat Search and Rescue 152 151 158 162 158 158 149 149 149 149
Air Refueling 528 524 522 521 531 538 531 529 533 536
Long-Range Strike 159 158 157 156 156 156 156 156 155 154
Anti-Surface/Submarine Warfare 603 632 633 637 644 677 683 673 658 654
Trainers 2,377 2,320 2,254 2,210 2,190 2,179 2,158 2,123 2,116 2,081
ISR/Scout/C4 1,169 1,236 1,276 1,333 1,330 1,371 1,399 1,406 1,460 1,418
Special Operations Forces 444 459 473 471 470 470 466 465 460 452
Total 14,340 14,496 14,560 14,571 14,515 14,475 14,465 14,472 14,527 14,415
Source: U.S. Defense Department