By Jen DiMascio

The president yesterday submitted to Congress a budget for $143.9 billion in Air Force funding, including $41 billion for modernization. The request for the second year defies a congressional mandate to develop two engines for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

Congress provided $134.6 billion last year, but service officials said that represents only a slight real increase in budget authority to cover the increased cost of fuel.

JSF, one of the service’s top five acquisition priorities, will make up much of the Air Force’s future fighter jet force. This year, the request includes $1.8 billion for eight Air Force aircraft; long-lead money for 12 aircraft is included in plans for the FY ’10 budget, Maj. Gen. Larry Spencer, budget director for the Air Force, told reporters in an embargoed briefing last week.

The Air Force plans to buy up 7,162 of the next-generation jets; the initial capability is expected in FY ’13, officials said.

But budget plans are bound to disappoint on Capitol Hill. This marks the second year in a row the Pentagon has called pursuing a second engine unaffordable and directed the Air Force to remove funding from this budget.

The department sought to kill the General Electric [GE]-Rolls-Royce F-136 engine in its FY ’07 budget request, but for the past two years Congress has provided about $240 million for the Air Force and the Navy to continue development. The service continues to fund development of the Pratt & Whitney [UTX] F-135 engine. The president is asking for an additional $1.5 billion in research and development funding for the F-35.

The budget includes $4 billion for 20 F-22 Raptor jets, representing the third and final year in a multi-year purchase of the stealth fighter jets.

Congress last year in its FY ’08 Defense Appropriations Act recommended that the Air Force use anticipated line closing costs in FY ’09 to pursue advance procurement of additional aircraft.

The service had asked to “recolor” $497 million in line closing costs for the Raptor as dollars for advance procurement of new aircraft, Spencer said.

With funding for FY ’09 procurement on the way, there was no need to program line-closing costs in this budget, Vice Adm. Steve Stanley, the Joint Staff’s director of force structure, resources and assessment, told reporters at a budget briefing yesterday. It also allows the next administration to address the issue, he said.

As such, the Pentagon denied the Air Force proposal and moved the money to fund F-15 fighter jets.

How money for F-15s will be spent is still under review as the commander of Air Combat Command continues his evaluation of the grounded jets, Spencer said.

Maintaining access to fighter jet production has been a priority for the service in the past.

Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England indicated in a recent memo that the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) would keep its F-22 line open and that he would include funding for four Raptors in a FY ’09 supplemental spending request for the war.

However, nothing about that request is currently in writing, Air Force officials said last week. The Pentagon has not asked the services to prepare detailed justifications for the $70 billion it requested today, making the request merely a placeholder without details.

In that case, the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-22 has neither money for aircraft beyond FY ’09 nor funding to start a line closing.

The service has also put off key decisions in this budget regarding its mobility platforms.

The budget includes $708.2 million for the C-5 Galaxy aircraft program. Growing costs on the Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program (RERP) last year breached legal thresholds and is currently under review by the Pentagon.

That breaks down into $562 million for the RERP, and of that, $123 million goes to research and development and $148.7 buys three kits in FY ’09. If approved, it would provide an additional $104 million to buy 10 kits for the Avionics Modernization Program (AMP) and advance procurement money for 12 kits in FY ’10, service officials said.

The Air Force last year sought to squelch the C-5 modernization effort by asking Congress for the authority to retire the worst of the mega-airlifters. Lawmakers have restricted retirement of C-5s until results of testing on the RERP program are tested, a milestone expected in 2010.

Still, the request does not add funding at this point to purchase new C-17 Globemaster aircraft or to close its production line. Boeing [BA], the contractor for C-17s, last March told reporters it would have to close the production line if it did not receive orders for the cargo plane last year. Congress is expected to add funding for the airlifters when it takes up the remainder of the FY ’08 supplemental, but there is no guarantee.

The FY ’09 base request from the Air Force also does not include funding to close the C-17 line.

According to Air Force and OSD officials, the service is still considering a number of issues as it seeks to balance its mobility accounts.

The Army’s need for C-17 airlift could grow both because of planned increases in the size of the force and the need to transport Future Combat System vehicles in the years to come, officials said. Additional airlift may also be needed for the stand-up of Africa Command, Spencer said.

OSD had a slightly different perspective, saying that growth in the ground forces did not necessary impact the amount of airlift that would be needed, because those estimates are based on operational scenarios rather than force size, according to Stanley. He added that the cost of closing the C-17 line was something that should be included in future budgets.

There was also no official need to fund the shutdown of the C-17 line, because the service never received a proposal for ending production. Should something like that occur, the service could reprogram funds to make up a shortfall, according to a service official.

The budget does include a hefty amount for C-17s–$935.1 million for support equipment, training data requirements and installation of Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures, according to budget documents.

In terms of the Combat Search and Rescue helicopter program, the service is requesting $320 million. The Air Force plans to buy 141 with a projected initial capability in FY ’12. The service expects to award a contract in early to late summer, and plans to include $15 million to begin advance procurement for two helicopters in FY ’10.

The request includes $240.3 million for 260 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles. A service official said that request aligns with the current program of record. The cruise missile program, which is undergoing a reliability recertification program, is improving, the official said. Based on the results of a 16-shot reliability demonstration this month, the service will approach John Young, the defense acquisition executive, in April or May. Once the program is recertified, the Air Force can award contracts for 110 of the missiles included in the FY ’08 budget and follow up with the missiles requested in FY ’09.

As a whole, the request buys 93 aircraft including 52 unmanned aerial vehicles, two satellites, four launch platforms and nearly 8,000 for missiles and munitions. That includes two C-130J Hercules, four MC-130 Combat Talons, six CV-22 Osprey helicopters, nine MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles and 38 MQ-1 Predator UAVs.

The request seeks $26.8 million in continuing research for the Joint Cargo Aircraft program and $5.4 million in advance procurement for the Air Force-Army program.

The service is seeking money to buy 275 AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles, 281 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles, 3,647 Hellfire missiles for the Predator UAV and 2,612 small diameter bombs.