LET'S see, how many air forces does the United States have? There's the Air Force, of course. That's one. Navy carrier planes, two. Army helicopters, three. The Marines have both carrier jets and copters. That makes four.
This proliferation of air arms is a favorite target for critics grumbling about what they call one of the Pentagon's grossest inefficiencies: duplication of roles in US military services. Overlap, according to critics, is everywhere, from weapons development to training and even missions.
Politicians have periodically tried to streamline the services since the days of President Harry Truman. Now Congress is again talking about reducing military duplication.
Since one of the backers of this effort is the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, lawmakers might actually make some progress this time.
"This is a long-term debate, and the answers are not clear," said Senator Nunn at a recent meeting with defense reporters.
Earlier this year Nunn gave a speech widely noticed in Washington that slammed defense redundancy. With military technology changing at a rapid pace while the defense budget shrinks, according to Nunn, the Pentagon can no longer afford the luxury of services designing similar weapons or training to fight in similar roles.
Accordingly, this year's Senate version of the defense authorization bill makes some changes in the name of efficiency that are already raising hackles in the military.
The Senate eliminated funds for upgrading the Air Force's EF-111 electronic warfare plane and gave the money to the Navy for its radar-jamming aircraft, the EA-6B. The Navy's plane, according to a Senate committee report, shows "superior capability."
The Senate legislation calls on the Army and the Marine Corps to "seek ways to complement each other's capabilities." This is one of the most sensitive of redundancy issues, as the Marines feel the Army is more and more edging into their mobile assault role.
Between them, the Air Force and Navy are planning to buy four brand-new or upgraded types of tactical warplanes over the next two decades at a total estimated cost of $400 billion.
The Senate warns bluntly that the nation can't afford all these types, and proposes to withhold half the money for tactical aircraft development pending a Joint Chiefs review of service roles and missions.
The Senate defense authorization is currently hung up on a separate dispute involving Strategic Defense Initiative spending, and the final legislation must still be hammered out with the house. But House Armed Services Committee chair Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin has also complained about duplication in tactical aircraft programs, and in that area at least Congress this year is likely to make some changes.
The aircraft in question are the Air Force's new F-22 air superiority fighters; the Navy's AX attack aircraft; the Navy's upgraded F-18E/F multipurpose fighter; and the Air Force's multirole fighter (MRF) program.
Congressional sources complain there's been virtually no interservice cooperation on these planes, though the Air Force is supposed to eventually buy the AX for itself sometime after the turn of the century. In particular they point to the F-18E/F and the MRF as similar planes for similar missions designed and built separately.
Nunn pointed out that only a few years ago the Air Force and Navy flew the same multirole fighter: the F-4 Phantom.
"We've gone backward in this regard," he said, admitting that it is likely all services will continue to fly airplanes. But he has been urging a long-term look at whether the US needs both carrier and land-based bombers.
He says that the upcoming JCS report could be a "good first step" for discussing further elimination of redundancies.