New fighters to cost more, Congress told 'Dramatic' changes in Pentagon budget may be indicated

Updating an aging fleet

Congressional Budget Office puts tab at $350 billion


February 14, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon needs "dramatic" spending changes to afford its plan to build a new generation of fighter jets, a new congressional study concludes.

And, even with the ambitious modernization plan, the study says, the nation's warplane fleet will reach an unprecedentedly high average age.

The total cost of three new aircraft programs could be $50 billion higher than currently estimated, making an already tough funding issue even tougher, the Congressional Budget Office said in a report released yesterday.

It put the price of the jet fighter programs at about $350 billion even without inflation, as opposed to the $300 billion now suggested by the Pentagon.

A key lawmaker said he hopes the CBO report will serve as a blueprint for reining in the building boom that much of the defense industry is counting on for the next few decades.

Maryland companies such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and the Electronic Sensors and Systems Division of Northrop Grumman have huge chunks of their business at stake in the debate over forging ahead with tactical aviation.

"If it means we've got to cancel some programs, then this is the time to cancel some programs. I'm prepared to lead that effort," said Rep. Curt Weldon, the Pennsylvania Republican who heads the Research and Development subcommittee of the National Security Committee.

Weldon requested the study and discussed it yesterday at a news conference. His comments came a day after newly installed Defense Secretary William S. Cohen testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that he, too, was concerned about how much the Pentagon intends to spend.

"Can we afford all the systems that are currently in the pipeline? I think it's premature to make a judgment on that. But it certainly is something we have to look at and consider," Cohen said Wednesday.

With its current fleet aging, the Pentagon has put together a trio of programs to boost tactical aviation into the next century: the F/A-18E/F for the Navy, the F-22 for the Air Force and the Joint Strike Fighter for three U.S. services and the British navy.

Even if all three programs are built as planned, the military's aircraft will reach an average age higher than any "since the advent of the jet engine," the CBO report said.

Air Force fighter planes would be an average of 18 years old by 2010, compared with a current average age of about 10 years, the study said.

Weldon held hearings last summer on the plan to modernize the fleet and has said ever since that the Clinton administration needs either to scale back or to commit a great deal more money.

He also complains that most of the costs start cropping up around the year 2000 -- when Clinton leaves office.

"The Clinton administration is preparing for a major, Reagan buildup in defense. Unfortunately, it's on someone else's shift," he said.

Yesterday's study, Weldon said, is the most comprehensive look yet at the situation and should provide a base of numbers for all sides to use in debates this year.

The CBO report looks at whether the defense budget can handle the three aircraft programs at current cost estimates (the answer is no); at how much the programs could increase in cost; and at several options for fixing the situation.

The F-22, which is a stealthy air dominance fighter intended to replace the F-15, is predicted to climb to an overall cost of about $70 billion from a current estimate of about $63 billion.

The F/A-18 E/F, a multipurpose fighter, is said to be on target with the Navy's estimated cost of $67 billion.

The Joint Strike Fighter is harder to pin down because the program is still in the early stages, but the CBO expects a total cost of $219 billion -- up from the $165 billion the Department of Defense now suggests.

Depending on several variables -- program cost, overall defense budget -- the Navy and the Air Force would virtually have to double spending on tactical aviation as a percentage of their annual budgets to afford those programs, the study says.

The report lists a series of options: Cancel the F-22. Cancel the F/A-18 E/F. Scale back the Joint Strike Fighter. Any such dramatic changes could wreak havoc on the defense industry, a large portion of which is tied up in those three programs.

Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., for instance, is the prime contractor on the F-22 and one of two finalists for the Joint Strike Fighter contract. Northrop Grumman's radar plant in Linthicum is doing work connected with all three programs.

"We believe there is a valid need for each of our programs that can stand on its own merits," Lockheed Martin spokesman Joe Stout said. He said the company understands that Congress must grapple with budgetary realities, but added that "we feel the budget can be configured downstream to address the military needs."

But Weldon insisted that no cut should be ruled out -- which is exactly what Defense Secretary Cohen says when discussing the Quadrennial Force Review scheduled to be completed by the middle of May. That study will set out priorities for the military, and could help determine what programs are built and which are abandoned or scaled back.

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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