Three planes, one wallet

February 25, 1997|By Jeffrey Record

ATLANTA -- A combination of strategic uncertainty, defense-dolllar scarcity and cost growth has prompted calls for the truncation or even termination of the program to build the F-22 as the world's most advanced fighter plane and a primary vehicle for ensuring U.S. air supremacy well into the 21st century.

To be sure, the Cold War's strategic urgency vanished with the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the subsequent remarkable enfeeblement of Russian military power. (The recent fighting in Chechnya demonstrated that the Russian army can't invade even its own country, much less those of NATO.)

But the need for continued U.S. investment in advanced military technologies remains. Operation Desert Storm conclusively disproved the claim that weapons systems designed to defeat Soviet forces are superfluous in a post-Soviet world. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, noting the 70 percent drop in weapons procurement over the past decade, has rightly selected arms modernization his top priority, even at the expense of manpower.

Rich in land power

In the unfolding New World Disorder, shrinking U.S. military forces face current (North Korea and Iraq) and potential future (China) adversaries that are comparatively rich in land power, and against whom, in the event of war, an immediate American seizure of air supremacy would be imperative.

And the F-22 is, quite simply, the most advanced fighter plane in history. Unlike most ''new'' aircraft, such as the Navy's F/A-18E/F, which reflect only incremental improvements over their predecessors, the F-22 offers a giant leap forward in radar invisibility, combat agility, supersonic range and computerized display of battlefield information. Do future Air Force pilots, and those Army soldiers whose lives may depend on rapid acquisition of friendly supremacy in the air, deserve anything less than the best available technologies to make that happen?

Defense dollars are scarce. Even with a new emphasis on modernization over manpower, it is unlikely that the services will be able to buy all the combat aircraft now envisaged: $71 billion for 438 F-22s (scheduled for first deliveries in the year 2000); $91 billion for up to 1,000 F/A-18E/Fs (1999); and $145-219 billion for 2,978 Joint Strike Fighters (a plane still in conceptual development, and designed for use by all services except the Army).

Something will have to give. One of these programs will have to be terminated, or at least two will have to be reduced in scope.

Politics and pork

This would be an easy choice but for the politics and pork involved. Though both the F-22 and JSF incorporate critical future technologies and address imperative operational requirements, the F/A-18E/F is a non-stealthy, interim plane (until the Navy receives the JSF) that marks a modest improvement over its still relatively new predecessor, the F/A-18C/D. The F/A-18E/F is inferior in range and payload to the retiring A-6, and in range to the aging F-14.

Some view the entire program as little more than a perverse sop to the Navy for its disastrous mismanagement of the A-12 attack-aircraft program. Others see it as a giant welfare handout to its corporate and political constituencies.

Is the national interest served by spending more than $90 billion for a stop-gap plane whose opportunity costs are almost certain to be exacted in the form of crippled buys of more advanced and effective aircraft? Cannot the Navy continue to rely on its present inventory of F/A-18C/Ds, which have yet to be flown even half their expected service life? Is the taxpayers' money well spent by retiring perfectly good C/Ds for the sake of keeping the F/A-18 production line open? These would be legitimate questions in a time of budgetary plenty; they are imperative questions in an era of acute austerity.

The F-22 is costly and getting costlier. But the 20 percent growth in the program estimate is quite modest by historical standards for cutting-edge technology aircraft at the F-22's present stage of development. (Overruns of 100 percent or higher marked more than a few big-ticket procurement programs during the Cold War.)

Moreover, the reason for the increase in the unit cost of the F-22 has not been add-ons by the manufacturer, but the combination of inflation and externally-imposed program reductions and delays. Reducing the buy and slowing the schedule compromise potential economies of scale and efficiencies of production. Too many members of Congress seems incapable of taking the long view; a dime saved in this year's defense budget may add a dollar five years hence.

The F-22's affordability may also depend on its export potential. The overseas market for an export version of the F-22 could amount to 300, even 400 planes -- numbers that would more than cancel out unit-cost growth to date.

Moreover, though the F-22, like the renowned F-15, which critics also denounced as unaffordable, was conceived as an air-to-air combat fighter, the F-22 is beginning to evolve, as did the F-15, into a true ''swing'' aircraft capable of performing both air-supremancy and other missions as ground attack and electronic survelliance.

Opposition to the F-22 comes largely from traditional doves, for whom no defense budget can be low enough, and F/A-18E/F proponents, for whom no other combat-aircraft program competing for potenially the same defense dollars can be small enough.

Jeffrey Record, a visiting professor at Georgia Tech, comments on national-security issues for The Sun.

Pub Date: 2/25/97

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