Superiority's Price Tag

THE biggest defense procurement plum of the rest of the century fell to Lockheed last week. The government's planned purchase of the company's Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF), or F-22, could reach $95 billion - topping even the price tag of the much-disputed B-2 stealth bomber. The Air Force contract was awarded at a time of considerable gloom in the defense industry as the Pentagon prepares to cut the size of the US military by a quarter by 1995. It also comes at a time of particular skepticism over huge arms contracts following cancellation of the Navy's A-12 attack plane by Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney earlier in the year because of cost overruns in excess of $1 billion.

The day before Air Force Secretary Donald Rice announced that Lockheed and its partners had won the ATF competition, the Congressional Budget Office released a study predicting that the new fighter's cost is likely to exceed spending limits imposed on the Pentagon by last fall's budget agreement.

The stage is set, therefore, for some spirited debate in Congress. Many lawmakers were disgusted by the A-12 boondoggle and are in a mood to look hard at appropriations for other large weapons systems. The B-2, always vulnerable because of its expense and clearly aimed at a diminishing Soviet threat, could go down in flames. But the ATF has never had vocal opponents in Congress, and a credible case can be made for updating the Air Force's aging fighter wings.

The Air Force argues that the new plane, with its radar-evading technology, will be crucial to maintaining US "air superiority" well into the next century. But the questions have to be asked: Superiority over whom? And in what likely circumstances?

The Gulf war may have temporarily shelved some of the thinking that had been under way concerning a new, post-cold-war strategic plan. That thinking should be vigorously resumed as the country weighs the cost of items like the ATF.

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