Air Power: How Much Can the US Afford
Just weeks after U.S. aircraft were credited with winning the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) campaign against Yugoslavia, the Air Force suddenly found its own plans for the next generation of jet fighters under fierce attack.
Critics in Congress charged that the nation cannot afford to build the $70 billion F-22 Raptor-proposed centerpiece of the U.S. fighter fleet for the next century-and two other new aircraft, the Joint Strike Fighter and the F-18 E/F Super Hornet, at the same time.
The Defense Department claimed that all three are necessary to maintain U.S. air superiority through 2030 and beyond.
The storm broke in mid-summer, when the House of Representatives voted unexpectedly to delete $1.8 billion for F-22 production from the $266 billion defense appropriations bill for fiscal year 2000. The cut, if approved by the entire Congress, would eliminate Air Force plans during the next year to buy the first six F-22s from Lockheed Martin Corp., of Bethesda, Md.
House leaders said their aim was not to kill the project, but to force a pause in procurement of the F-22 and to pressure the Air Force to reassess whether it is spending too much on developing new fighter planes and neglecting "more urgent" needs revealed by the recent war against Yugoslavia.
"The Air Force has such tremendous needs in so many other areas-air tankers, airlift transports, aerial reconnaissance-that we believe it is imperative for them to reassess their priorities," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee. The House proposed redirecting the F-22 money to a wide range of other Air Force needs, including purchase of eight F-15 Eagle fighters, six F-16 Falcons and eight KC-130J Hercules air tankers not requested by the administration.
Top Pentagon officials, however, said that the cut in F-22 funding "puts in jeopardy" the nation's entire military modernization program:
"Whether we are planning for current operations or deciding on weapons systems that are necessary for future conflicts, the fundamental assumption is that our forces will be able to gain and maintain air superiority," said a letter signed by all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "The F-22 is the aircraft we are counting on to guarantee control of the skies in the next century."
The F-22-now undergoing flight testing-is scheduled to become operational in 2005, replacing the Air Force's F-15. Even though the newest version of the F-15 has been upgraded with modern technology, the original design now is about 25 years old. Defense officials argued that the F-22's combination of stealth technology, speed and integrated avionics will give its pilots the clear advantage for the next three decades.
The F22, however, has two problems, Murray said: Its cost and its potential usefulness. The Air Force currently plans to buy 339 F-22s-at cost of $187 million each, almost four times the $47 million cost of a single F-15, according to some of the program's critics.
Although the Air Force claimed that the F-22 is needed to maintain U.S. air superiority, critics asserted that no threat to U.S. air dominance currently exists anywhere in the world. Nor, they added, is one likely to appear for several decades.
The Russians are working on a new fighter, the SU-35, which defense officials feared will be superior to any U.S. aircraft that is currently deployed.
But Ivan Eland, director of defense policy studies at the Washington-based Cato Institute, noted that Russia's economy is in deep trouble. This, he said, "severely limits the quantities [of any aircraft] that can be purchased and the all-important training given to pilots."
The United States faces few other true competitors in the air, Eland said. "China is modernizing its antiquated air force slowly, and its pilots receive substantially less training than do U.S. pilots. The Iraqi air force was decimated in the Gulf War, and the Iranian and North Korean air forces are antiquated." For the foreseeable future, Eland said, no other country is likely to be able to afford to buy Russian MiGs, Eurofighters or French Rafales in large enough quantities to compete with the very large U.S. Air Force. Few in the defense community doubted the quality of the F-22, but many questioned the need to build it while simultaneously producing two other new fighter aircraft-the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), meant for the Navy and Marines, as well as the Air Force, and the F/A-18E/F, designed just for the Navy. The F/A-18 E/F-a product of The Boeing Company's facility in St. Louis-has been undergoing testing for the past four years. Now, Congress, nearing agreement on defense spending for the coming fiscal year, seems poised to permit the sea service to begin procuring the aircraft over the next several years. The estimated cost: $20 billion, or $57 million for each of 548 aircraft wanted by the Navy, according to Boeing.
The F/A-18 E/F is designed to conduct air-to-air combat with enemy aircraft and to provide close and deep air support for both ground and fleet forces. Unlike Air Force fighters, the F/A-18 E/F is equipped to operate from the Navy's 10 aircraft carriers.
The JSF is intended to serve separate needs for all three services. The Air Force plans to use the JSF primarily for air-to-ground assault, replacing the F-16 and A-10 Warthog. The Navy sees the JSF as a "first-day-of-the-war," survivable strike fighter, complementing the new F/A-18 E/F. The Marines envision it as a short-takeoff, vertical-landing aircraft to replace their Harrier and Hornet.
The JSF is still in the early stages of development. Two competing contractors, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, are building separate prototypes that are scheduled to be tested, starting in 2000. The following year, Pentagon officials are to select a winning design. The selected manufacturer is scheduled to deliver the first 12 aircraft to the services in 2005.
Cost estimates for the JSF run from a low of $169 billion, according to the Pentagon's JSF program office, to a high of $292 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Because the Pentagon anticipates orders of 3,000 JSF from the Air Force, Navy and Marines, plus another 2,000 sales to allies, it estimates the cost at $28 million per fighter for the Air Force version.
Critics, however, called that figure a low ball. They noted that the Navy's carrier-landing and the Marines' short-takeoff, vertical-landing requirements will necessitate expensive design modifications. Said the Army War College's Murray:
"Given the Defense Department's track record in estimating fighter procurement costs, the JSF will probably cost considerably more than the $28 million currently called for."
As cost estimates escalate, a growing chorus of critics objects that the Pentagon's shopping list for fighters is too long. Christopher Jehn, assistant director of the Congressional Budget Office's National Security Division, recently warned a Senate armed services subcommittee hearing that the department's "fighter plans may be difficult to afford." He added:
"If the Defense Department receives currently planned increases in its budget in the future-an outcome that is far from assured-it will still need to increase by 50 percent the average share of funding it has spent on fighter procurement for more than 20 years. If it cannot hold fighter prices down, it needs to double that share."
If the United States cannot afford to build all three fighters currently under development, critics argued, one of the new aircraft ought to be cancelled. Eland, of the Cato Institute, said the fighter to scrap is the F-22. "For an aircraft that will be used primarily for attacking ground targets (in the absence of many significant air-to-air threats), the F-22 is exorbitantly priced and not optimally designed for the mission." Eland said. The money saved by "terminating this prehistoric bird of prey," he said, could be put to better uses, such as upgrading the F-15-"already probably the best fighter aircraft in the world."
The Air Force was quick to defend the F-22. Lt. Gen. Gregory Martin, principal deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told a recent Cato Institute forum that if the service had bought 750 F-22s, as originally planned-instead of the current order of 339-the cost would be about $60 million per plane, not the opponents' estimate of $187 million per copy.
In any case, Martin said, the F-22 will guarantee continued air dominance by the United States "a century after Normandy," adding: "The value of that is priceless."
The fate of the F-22 is in the hands of a House and Senate conference committee considering differing versions of the 2000 defense appropriations bill passed by the two houses. At press time, the conferees were working on a compromise bill that included some funding to continue development of the F-22. Capitol Hill insiders said that it was unlikely for the House version-deleting funding for F-22 purchases during the year-to prevail. It would be highly unusual, they said, for Congress to derail development of a major weapons system this late in the game.
Furthermore, they noted, the Senate bill approves the F-22 purchases, as planned. Additionally, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has served notice that he "will not take a bill to the Senate that does not contain the F-22."
Even if Stevens is able to protect the F-22 in the 2000 defense appropriations, however, analysts noted that the aircraft's opponents have succeeded in calling the nation's attention to an issue that is not likely to go away-the escalating cost of maintaining air superiority for U.S. forces in the next century.