Cohen sought F-22 cuts in 1990

As Maine senator, defense chief said jet was an anachronism

August 02, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

The Pentagon is trying to protect the F-22 fighter plane from congressional budget cuts by insisting that the jet is crucial for future military dominance, but Defense Secretary William S. Cohen once argued just the opposite.

Cohen called for the elimination of the program in 1990 when he was a Republican senator from Maine and an influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"The astonishing pace of political change in Eastern Europe has caused many conventional assumptions to crumble," Cohen wrote in an op-ed piece published in the Washington Post on April 9, 1990. "A wide variety of systems intended for use in the European theater, such as the Advanced Tactical Fighter [F-22] should be eliminated."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun about Defense Secretary William S. Cohen changing position on the F-22 fighter plane incorrectly identified the party affiliation of Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, who is a Republican.
The Sun regrets the error.

Cohen was out of the country this week and could not be reached for comment. A Defense Department spokeswoman reiterated that the Pentagon considers the F-22 to be the nation's only guarantee of future control of the air.

Cohen has made that point vividly in recent weeks as the Lockheed Martin Corp. program came under fire in the House of Representatives, which voted to block $1.8 billion that had been intended for buying six stealth jets in next year's defense budget.

"I cannot accept a defense bill that kills this cornerstone program," Cohen wrote to Congress on July 15.

His apparent change of heart over the years points out the flexible nature of an argument that Air Force generals tend to present in absolute terms. Several members of Congress attended a classified briefing last week in which the Air Force laid out a case that foreign military threats continue to justify a $62.7 billion F-22 program designed to combat a modern ized Soviet Union.

"We know from the classified briefing that the threat is real," said Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Democrat.

But as The Sun reported two weeks ago in a series of stories that explored the rising cost and broken promises of the F-22 program, others who have seen classified intelligence reports about the development of advanced fighter planes in Russia came to a different conclusion.

The new Russian planes "will never come about in my lifetime" because they are dependent on a vibrant Russian economy, said Lou Rodrigues of the General Accounting Office.

Unable to pay its troops and with much of its current aircraft fleet grounded, the Russian military is a shadow of the Soviet war machine that existed in 1990 when Cohen began criticizing the early version of the F-22 program.

Along with Arizona Sen. John McCain, Cohen was among a group of reform-minded Republicans who wanted to slim down the costly defense legacy of the Reagan administration.

Congressional testimony and press clips from 1990 and 1991 show that Cohen regularly challenged the Air Force on the potential cost of the Advanced Tactical Fighter, which is what the program was called before Lockheed won the contract to build its design for the F-22.

But cost was not the thrust of Cohen's op-ed piece. Arguing that future battles will involve small enemies in unpredictable places, Cohen wrote that it will be important to have transport planes, naval forces and light Army units that can respond quickly to remote trouble spots.

`Should be sacrificed'

In addition to eliminating the Advanced Tactical Fighter, Cohen argued for stopping the B-2 bomber program and for cutting the Army's Comanche helicopter program.

"In short, conventional programs primarily designed to defeat Soviet aggression in Europe should be sacrificed in favor of those that will be needed to meet a variety of challenges that we are likely to face in other regions," he wrote.

Then-Defense Secretary Richard Cheney cautioned Congress in 1990 about making too many cuts "based simply upon six months of good news out of Europe." But he recommended delaying the F-22 program by two years because "we can in fact afford to slow down the pace of developing and fielding the next generation of aircraft, and the total inventory that we plan to buy can in fact be changed, modified and reduced in light of recent world developments," as he explained in a House hearing.

Nine years later, air-to-air combat with a huge, technologically advanced foe is so unlikely that it would not make sense to design an F-22 if the program were starting over from scratch, said Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group defense consulting firm.

"Only a lunatic would start something like this today," Aboulafia said, though he advocates building the F-22 because the nation has already invested about $20 billion in developing it.

A fan of F-22

Cohen continues to acknowledge the dramatic changes in military threats, but has become a fan of the F-22. He warned Congress that the proposed $1.8 billion cut would kill the program, and that doing so would be a serious mistake.

He is leading a campaign to restore the money when House budget conferees meet with their Senate counterparts to reconcile budget differences, which is likely to take place in September, after Congress' summer recess. The Senate approved full funding of $3 billion for the F-22 for next year.

Acknowledging that the recent air campaign in Kosovo demonstrated the utter dominance of America's current fighter planes, Cohen has warned that new planes being built in Europe could be of equal quality.

And while no nation even comes close to the resources the United States puts into defense -- spending as much as Russia, China, Japan, France and Germany combined, according to 1995 statistics -- Cohen told a Senate committee on July 20 that the F-22 is a hedge against an unknown future.

Pub Date: 8/02/99

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