On Saturday, Nov. 16, the secretary of defense announced that McDonnell Douglas has been eliminated from the competition to build the new, multipurpose Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
The JSF is expected to be a stand-alone, stealthy, first-day-of-the-war, survivable combat aircraft that will not be as dependent upon support aircraft as existing fighter jets. It is currently being pursued as a technology development program with $600 million for it in the fiscal 1997 budget. It is intended for service late in the next decade as a replacement for several aircraft now serving the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.
The two companies that remain in the JSF competition, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, are to prepare two prototypes each for a fly-off, the winner to be announced in 2001. This preliminary bout will cost the taxpayer about $2 billion.
Extra profits overseas
That is just the tip of the iceberg. Plans call for production of 2,978 Joint Strike Fighters at a total program cost estimated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) at $218.8 billion. Add training, spare parts, and maintenance support equipment and the per plane cost to the taxpayer will approach $100 million. The contractors foresee possible foreign sales of another 1,000 aircraft, further increasing profits.
For that kind of money, the American people are entitled to know what they are buying into.
In the 1960s then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara ordered the Air Force and the Navy to acquire a single tactical aircraft to perform two differing missions. But the TFX fighter-bomber failed because service and performance requirements were so divergent. And they are even more so now.
The JSF must be able to operate off aircraft carriers as a Navy fighter/bomber and off small Marine airstrips in battle zones. It must be strong enough to withstand catapult and arrested landing forces and also light enough to have vertical takeoff and landing capability. At the same time, the Air Force wants much higher performance characteristics to provide air superiority against enemy fighters. And all of this in a stealthy plane to evade radar detection. Some plane!
Consider the Navy's failure to meet far lesser requirements with the design of its A-12 attack plane. Originally conceived as a $52 billion program on the cutting edge of technology and a major symbol of the Reagan defense buildup, the A-12 ended up as the largest weapons program ever terminated by the Pentagon. Despite spending nearly $3 billion, the Navy never received a single, fully assembled prototype of the plane. Then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney finally canceled the troubled program in 1991, an action that may add as much as $2 billion to settle damage claims by two defense firms.
But even if it were possible to satisfy all of the competing service requirements, why invest hundreds of billions of dollars now? After all, there is no projected threat in the first quarter of the 21st century to US air superiority on a global basis. US combat aircraft are unexcelled. Current US plans call for keeping a force of some 3,500 combat aircraft over the long term.
By comparison, three countries often identified by the Pentagon as potential adversaries - Iran, Iraq, and North Korea - have a combined total of about 1,200 combat aircraft. And, according to the CBO, only about 100 are comparable in design to current-generation US fighters.
Furthermore, already well advanced in development are two brand new aircraft to modernize US combat airpower. The Air Force F-22 program calls for 442 highly sophisticated air-superiority fighters at an estimated total program cost of $70 billion. The Navy plans 1,000 new F/A-18E/F aircraft to improve and expand its fighter/strike capabilities at a cost of $81 billion.
Is it wise, or even affordable, to embark on an aircraft program now to replace $150 billion worth of aircraft so new they haven't been built? The F-22s and F/A-18E/Fs will just be approaching full strength in the field when the JSF is expected to become operational around the year 2010.
Upgrade what's proven
Instead of building entirely new weapons before they are needed, the Pentagon can satisfy its combat air requirements by investing in upgrades of proven existing weapons. This would lessen the risk of technical problems and program delays. It would also be far less costly.
Lacking any credible threat to our ability to dominate airspace wherever and whenever we have to, do we need - and can we afford - to spend hundreds of billions more to pursue three new strike fighter aircraft?
During the cold war, the United States and the Soviet Union took turns leapfrogging each other in a tit-for-tat arms race. Now we are only leapfrogging ourselves. American citizens deserve to have their hard-earned tax dollars spent meeting genuine national needs rather than squandered on unneeded weapons to defeat imaginary enemies.
*Vice Admiral John J. Shanahan (USN, ret.) is director of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.