The Air Force has proposed dropping several major items from its research and procurement programs because not even President Reagan's large defense buildup will provide enough money for all the new weapons now contemplated.
The program cancellations, suggested in a secret Pentagon document, include the AWACS sentry plane, the TR1 reconnaissance aircraft, fledgling missiles and the airborne laser laboratory.
Critics have said for some time that the services are starting more weapons programs than even the Reagan defense budget can cover, so that at some point either the budget or some of the weapons will have to give. The new Air Force document is a clear indication that some generals have come to the same conclusion, looking at the fiscal years 1985 through 1989.
The Air Force was recently warned by one of its own study panels that "we are trying to do too much with our current budget, and, as a result, we are not doing many things well." The panel's draft report last winter on an "Affordable Acquisition Approach" called for weapons cancellations to help stabilize the procurement program.
The new Air Force "hit list" of weapons is contained in the service's program objectives memorandum, or POM, designed to help shape the next five-year budget, now in the early stages of preparation. The POM has been seen by some members of Congress, and congressional committees looking for places to cut this year's budget may move to cancel some of the listed programs this year rather than wait until next.
The recommendation that the AWACS (airborne warning and control system) be canceled represents not only an effort to save money but also an acknowledgment by Air Force leaders that Congress is unlikely to go along with Reagan's plan to buy a fleet of those planes to guard the continental United States against Soviet bomber attack.
The House Armed Services Committee put the writing on the wall last week in its report on the fiscal 1984 authorization bill, declaring: "Of the threats confronting the United States, strategic bomber attack against the continental United States must rank relatively low," particularly since the United States has no defense against the missiles the Soviet Union would most likely launch first. The committee called for an end to AWACS procurement.
The Air Force POM recommends 19 projects for cancellation. "Constrained funding" is listed as the reason for 17 of them, even though the Air Force budget is projected to rise about a third from fiscal 1985 to 1989--from $106.1 billion to $136.4 billion. The remaining two deferrals are laser programs, which the Air Force proposes to keep out of the budget until Reagan defines more clearly what he wants done in space weaponry, the area of defense he touted in his recent "Star Wars" speech.
Defense contractors, such as the Boeing Co., which builds the AWACS, and Lockheed Corp., which manufactures the TR1 spy plane, are expected to mobilize their friends in Congress against the cancellations proposed.
Here are major items the Air Force document nominates for the chopping block, or to be kept on hold, in putting together the next five-year plan:
E3A AWACS. The Air Force seeks $145.3 million for this flying sentry and command post for fiscal 1984, with $76.2 million of that to buy three AWACS to start a continental air defense fleet. The House Armed Services Committee, in denying that money, said the $7.5 billion it would cost to build an air defense around the continental United States would be better spent on defending military bases in Europe and Korea.
TR1 spy plane. The Air Force this year is asking $238 million for this follow-on to the U2 high-flying reconnaissance plane, with $214.8 million earmarked for buying five planes. The House Armed Services Committee approved $165.3 million for procurement.
Missiles. The Air Force proposes to cancel the medium-range air-to-surface missile (MRASM) now budgeted for research funds of $21.9 million in fiscal 1984 and $13.4 million in fiscal 1985; it would also cancel the WASP and joint tactical missile projects.
Space weapons. The airborne laser laboratory, long a source of controversy in Congress, would be canceled, while the space-based laser program and the affiliated Talon Gold space defense effort would be put on hold "awaiting definition of president's defense program," according to the POM.
Civil reserve air fleet (CRAF). This program allows the Air Force to reimburse airlines for modifying planes to carry military cargo in an emergency, such as adding bigger doors and stronger floors. The House Armed Services Committee enthusiastically supports CRAF. It authorized $144.3 million for it for fiscal 1984 and complained about the "glacial pace" of the program. The Air Force has set up a confrontation with the committee by proposing CRAF's termination.
Tanker transport bomber. This program would be nipped in the bud. The Air Force originally planned to start it in fiscal 1984, requesting $1.5 million in research funds for that year and $5.67 million in fiscal 1985.
The recommended cancellations in the Air Force POM conform to some of the recommendations in the hard-hitting "Affordable Acquisition" report, written by six retired Air Force generals and published in revised form in February. Their original report warned that there probably would not be enough money to pay for all the weapons the service intended to order.
"The Air Force will have to start planning, budgeting and managing better," said the report.