What a difference a day makes. Before the Air Force decided to give the Advanced Technology Fighter contract to a team led by Lockheed, Northrop Corp. was working on the biggest military aircraft job ever, building the B-2 bomber. Then, Northrop and partner McDonnell Douglas became doubtful finishers in the long-term race for survival in the business of making warplanes. Lockheed, which hasn't had a top fighter since the F-104, teamed with General Dynamics and Boeing, which hadn't made one in 50 years.
But technology apparently played a lesser role. Aerospace firms make a big to-do over their latest designs' Star Wars capabilities, but project management is their most important skill. Thus, Northrop, under fire for B-2 cost overruns and sweating out new congressional assaults over mismanagement of the Navy's A-12 bomber, was seen even before the Air Force decision as a less viable Pentagon dancing partner. McDonnell Douglas, maker of the F-15 Eagle, has had financial and management problems of its own.
Pentagon planners were apparently as impressed with Lockheed's management and construction plan and the financial stability of Boeing, which hasn't made money on its military planes but is the world's No. 1 builder of civilian airliners.
That is not to say there's no new technology in the ATF. Observers say the winners' YF-22, with its computer-controlled wing surfaces and variable exhaust nozzles, can out-maneuver anything flying, even going level to the ground with its nose to the sky and its belly to the wind. The Air Force called for a plane more fuel-efficient than the F-15 but able to outrun the speed of sound without using afterburners. The YF-22 easily exceeded the specs, demonstrating as well its ability to fire missiles from inside its skin. And stealth technology, since the Persian Gulf war, has become a premium item.
That war also revealed a few more needs, however. A critical one was for more cargo-lift capacity. Few enemies, even in the Third World, will patiently wait on a months-long buildup like Saddam Hussein, so Congress will probably drop its opposition to the C-17. Perhaps fewer still will present threats big enough to require B-52 bombardment. The Air Force is right that the time to develop a new fighter is now and that the B-52s eventually have to be replaced, but Congress is right to ask whether the B-2, Northrop's other big-ticket item, is a cost-effective stand-in.
The Pentagon is scaling back its budgets, cutting Air Force fighter wings and trimming Army and Navy forces and choosing weapons systems it can support over expensive ones it cannot buy. It is time for the Air Force, which seems intent on riding gulf war success into a budget-busting future, to rein-in its dreams. Hard choices mean lean budgets, not wild blue wish lists for planes no one can afford.