The sky-high cost of developing the F-22

F-22: Air Force plane's escalating costs show the need for better accountability by Congress.

July 24, 1999

CONGRESS DID a shabby job of holding the Pentagon and defense contractors accountable for the towering cost of the F-22 Raptor plane. The system is now twice as expensive as the Pentagon first estimated, and it's threatening to suck money away from the purchase and maintenance of other key defense systems.

As next year's budget for the F-22 moves to discussion in a House-Senate conference committee, lawmakers ought to be thinking about how far this system should be pursued -- or whether it should be abandoned altogether.

In a three-part series this week Sun reporter Greg Schneider found that the Pentagon deliberately underestimated costs for the supersonic plane to win political support, overstated the need for the aircraft, eliminated other programs to improve the F-22's chances and persuaded Congress to commit to the system long before proving that it worked.

It's unclear why lawmakers so eagerly accepted the Pentagon's early projections. But pork may have had something to do with it: Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. promised to spread work on the plane over congressional districts in 46 states and Puerto Rico.

Still, had lawmakers looked at the plane's real potential, they might have seen that the fighter is more expensive and less an improvement than advertised.

Yes, the new aircraft can elude radar and carry guided bombs, but existing U.S. warplanes are already the world's most sophisticated and dominant. Our pilots are better trained, too.

There is also less military competition around the globe to justify such an expensive new fighter.

The United States' military budget is larger than the next five top-spending countries' combined. After the Cold War, Russia fell from the rank of superpower and is now incapable of resuming an arms race. And in an era where suitcase bombs -- rather than fighter planes -- are often the weapons of choice, terrorism may be a greater threat than outright military might.

So why do we need a pricey new super-sonic hammer?

The F-22 is stretching the limits of our defense budget, which now operates under a strict spending cap that is likely to get even tighter. Every dollar spent on this project means less to acquire and buy parts for other defense systems.

Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes rightly demand assurances that F-22 development costs will not exceed congressional cost limitations. The Senate, however, has already approved the plane's full $3 billion budget for next year.

The House voted on Thursday to cut $1.8 billion from next year's F-22 budget. Now the conference committee must determine which course to follow.

Given the evidence, there shouldn't be much doubt: The House-approved cut, and perhaps others, make good sense.

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