The costs and benefits of ruling the skies

How much air power does a military superpower need in the 21st century?

One is intended to be a broom, sweeping skies clear of enemy aircraft. Another is a hammer, pounding hostile troops on the ground. The third is a decathlete, landing and taking off almost anywhere.

But does the US need all three?

That's the question lawmakers on Capitol Hill are asking as they consider funding for three jet fighters - a decision that will help shape the direction of the US military in the 21st century.

To the Pentagon, each aircraft performs a unique function - and thus all three are needed to help the US maintain air superiority for the next 50 years.

But critics counter with one monolithic figure: $340 billion - the estimated cost of the three fighters over the next 20 years and the equivalent of the annual GDP of Russia.

The price tag is high enough that even many pro-defense members of Congress are balking. This clash over weaponry will affect all branches of the military. It also raises a question that is becoming increasingly pointed in the post cold war: How modern does the US military need to be?

"They have these three fighters on the books because they all evolved separately," says Ivan Eland, a defense expert at the Cato Institute here. "The question now is what do you do with them?"

The best known of the three new planes is the Air Force's F-22. Then there's the futuristic-looking Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) under development for all of the services but the Army. Incomplete prototypes of both are undergoing limited testing.

The third system, the Navy's F/A 18 E/F Super Hornet program, is far more evolved, with production under way.

The House recently axed $1.9 billion dollars for production of six F-22's, allocating $1.2 billion dollars for continued research and development. The Senate previously fully funded the program. Conferees are expected to restore at least some of the production money.

The $70 billion Raptor program was conceived during the Reagan years when the cold war still ruled. Currently, in the midst of a new reality, $20 billion has been spent on research and development alone.

Lawmakers are questioning whether production costs will exceed the spending caps imposed by Congress. Lockheed-Martin, the principal contractor, says that won't happen. But skepticism remains in Congress that the platinum costs will go even higher.

Assurances against cost overruns are being made "by the people who originally told us these airplanes would cost $35 million a piece," says Rep. Jerry Lewis (R) of California, who led the effort to scrub production money for the plane in the House.

Pentagon strategists argue all that three are needed because each system is designed with separate battlefield functions.

With supersonic speeds, radar-evading stealth skin, and intercept capability, the F-22 is intended to create air dominance by shooting down enemy planes and eliminating radar and weapons sites.

The JSF is a multi-role fighter. "It is meant to attack targets on the ground but not meant to be a top-line dogfighter," says Michael O'Hanlon at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Lockheed- Martin Corp. and the Boeing Company are competing to manufacture the JSF. With a potential order of as many as 3,000 aircraft, the Pentagon expects savings with mass production, paying between $28 and $36 million each.

The goal is to tailor the JSF to the needs of three services:

*The Air Force's version will replace the A-10 and F-16, delivering precision munitions with air-to-air combat capability.

*The Navy wants its stealth fighter-bomber version to be lighter than the Air Force's for carrier landings, but tough enough to take landings and take-offs at sea.

*The Marines want jump-jet ability, to get in and out of short runways.

The third major fighter system is the Navy's multi-role F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The carrier-based fighter carries nine tons of ordinance. It has expanded fuel capacity and size, extending its range.

But all the technological wizardry comes at a perhaps prohibitive cost. The JSF and F-22 would go into heavy production 10 to 15 years from now. That makes the fighter-jets a long term fiscal worry. It also ignores the present budget squeeze caused by escalating maintenance and production costs on the current fleet of fighters.

Upkeep of existing aircraft is already to the point that one of the five B-1B's deployed to Kosovo was sent "only as a source for spare parts," says Representative Lewis.

"The reason we are in a death spiral is we cannot choose," says Franklin Spinney, a program evaluator for the Department of Defense. "If I were God, I'd kill all three programs. We'd start over."

The Air Force vehemently defends the most expensive of the programs, the F-22. It argues that without the F-22, new versions of the SAM missile, as well as the advanced Eurofighter and the Russian SU35, will put the US fleet at risk.

"The cost is affordable but I think you can see the value of the program is priceless," says Lt. Gen. Gregory Martin, an Air Force acquisition officer. He predicts the plane could dramatically reduce US casualties in future conflicts.

But many of the F-22's gee-whiz features are untested, exacerbating concerns.

"Let's let the technology mature and do it right," says Chris Hellman, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information. "The thing is being rushed into production with a minimum of testing, which might be justified in the cold war. But there is no legitimate reason to rush this thing."

Critics also say there are cheaper alternatives than the three jets, such as precision munitions and unmanned drone aircraft.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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