Military may cut aircraft projects Fewer purchases or canceling 1 of 3 fighters considered

March 06, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Pentagon officials are looking at scrapping any one of three expensive new fighter plane programs or cutting purchases by as much as half, an Air Force general told lawmakers yesterday.

Gen. Joseph Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told members of the House National Security Committee that military leaders are putting the Air Force F-22, the Navy Superhornet and the multiservice Joint Strike Fighter on the table in a review of defense priorities.

With a combined cost of about $350 billion, the three tactical aircraft programs are believed to be the most expensive defense initiative in history. They contributed to the continuing reshaping of the defense industry, driving McDonnell Douglas Corp. into a merger with Boeing Co. in a bid to win the Joint Strike Fighter contract.

McDonnell Douglas also builds the F/A-18 E/F Superhornet, which Boeing is counting on as it seeks to enter the military aircraft market for the first time since World War II. And the F-22, a fighter plane so stealthy and deadly that it will literally rule the skies, is a major meal ticket for Bethesda's Lockheed Martin Corp., which also is competing with Boeing for the Joint Strike Fighter.

The problem: The three programs come as the Pentagon's hardware budget is shrinking each year.

"Cost is a very serious issue," Ralston told a joint meeting of two National Security subcommittees. He had made similar remarks earlier in the day to members of the Senate.

As part of the Quadrennial Force Review, a military priority-shaping exercise due for completion in May, the joint chiefs are looking at drastic options, Ralston said. Those include terminating any one of the three fighter plane programs, or keeping all three but buying only 25 percent or 50 percent as many, the general said.

It was clear from Ralston's presentation and from testimony by the Pentagon acquisitions chief, Paul Kaminski, though, that military leaders would prefer to keep the programs as they are.

Ralston pointed out that U.S. forces have been able to deter aggressors with the threat of superior technology, but he said that a number of foreign aircraft such as the French Mirage 2000 and the Eurofighter are pulling even or jumping ahead.

"If we let this technological edge slip I believe we will be challenged," Ralston said.

"We are not looking for an equal or fair fight here," Kaminski added. "We want to be unfair. We want air dominance to be complete on our side."

Kaminski and Ralston contended that the plans to purchase 4,400 combat jets by 2030 will fit into future Pentagon budgets.

But House Research and Development Subcommittee Chairman Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, pointed out that the planes could cost as much as $18 billion a year; the Pentagon now spends about $2.8 billion a year on combat jets.

And Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, who chairs the Military Procurement Subcommittee, said Kaminksi's plans assume unrealistically high Pentagon purchasing budgets.

Three years ago, Hunter noted, the Clinton administration projected that the Pentagon would have $60 billion a year to spend on new hardware by about 1998. The president's current budget proposal, he pointed out, requests $42 billion for acquisitions.

Balancing the federal budget means that figure is not likely to rise, said Hunter, a Republican. So if funding remains constant, he asked Kaminski, what happens to the combat jets?

"It would significantly reduce the purchase of tactical aircraft," Kaminski said.

"Would the appropriate word be 'devastating?' " Hunter asked.

"I'm not sure I would use the word 'devastating,' " Kaminski replied, suggesting that he would use the term "change in a significant way."

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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