Endangered weapons: Which will get the ax?

Slowing economy, desire for missile defense, may lead to one or more weapons programs being scrapped.

As President Bush tries to carry out his pledge to modernize the military, he may be left with no choice but to trim some of the biggest procurement programs in the history of defense spending.

From the Air Force's F-22 super jet to the Army Destroyer, a gigantic howitzer, current weapons programs are in a rare state of jeopardy.

Part is due to the natural aging of equipment and the need to update vast weapons systems. Part is due a slowing economy that could lead to a smaller-than-expected federal budget surplus.

And Mr. Bush's vague campaign pledges - to boost national-missile-defense efforts while "skipping a generation of weapons" - haven't helped.

"I think [Bush and his advisers] were talking through their hats during the campaign," says Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration. "They were trying to be all things to all people."

Perhaps the most dramatic of all is the possibility that the Joint Strike Fighter could be slowed, reduced, or even killed. The versatile JSF has been planned for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines, as well as for export to Britain. At about $200 billion for 3,000 copies, it would be the largest military procurement in history.

Yet the JSF is considered thrifty because of scales of production, which lead to lower per-copy costs, and its marketability overseas. "It's simply what's best for the nation," says Marine Lt. Col. Gary Thomas. In addition to helping three branches of the military, he says, "it would dominate the foreign [sales] market."

But because the JSF is not a top priority for the Navy or Air Force, and because it is a decade away from production, it is thought to be an obvious target of Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Bush has said that before he makes any decisions, he will conduct a bottom-to-top review of the military. Yet, already there is a buzz in Washington defense circles about which program will be first to fall under the budget knife. "Rumsfeld has been talking to people in Congress about killing it," says one defense industry insider about the JSF. "He's canvassing people to find out where they stand."

Slowing or cutting the JSF program would certainly lighten the defense budget, which this year is about $310 billion. Of

that total, however, a relatively small amount - $60 billion - is set aside for procurement. Experts in Washington estimate that the Pentagon's current wish list would cost about $80 billion a year in procurement for the next 15 years.

While Bush has said he would try to cut costs by decreasing US commitments overseas, he has also made other promises, including $1 billion in military pay raises and a vigorous missile-defense program. As missile defense expands, possibly onto the seas and into space, the price could soar well above its current $60 billion projection.

During his campaign, Bush said he would try to beef up the overall defense budget by $45 billion over a 10-year period. But that probably won't be enough.

"There's a mismatch," says Steven Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments here. "If you look at the budget, it's clearly not enough to sustain the current defense plans."

In addition to the Joint Strike Fighter, other aircraft are under consideration to be scaled back. One is the Air Force's crown jewel, the F-22 Raptor, which could cost up to $125 million per copy and is so advanced that critics consider it to be overkill in the post-cold-war environment. But the program is unlikely to be halted altogether, because $24 billion has already been sunk into development.

Some say an obvious target is the Marine's V-22 Osprey, which rises like a helicopter and flies like a propeller plane. It's a $40 billion program that is mired in controversy, having crashed twice recently, killing 23 Marines.

In addition to aircraft, the Pentagon may look for cuts in equipment that goes against current efforts to make the forces more nimble. One obvious choice would be the Army Crusader, a howitzer that's so heavy it's difficult to move. Cutting the program could save $5 billion or more.

"It can't move through most streets or over bridges," says Luke Warren, an arms-control expert at the Council for a Livable World Education Fund in Washington. "The Army should [invest in] something that works in an urban fighting zone."

Another possible target is the Navy's stealthy DD-21 destroyer, which is still early in development, making it perhaps easier to stop than older programs like the Osprey. But the DD-21, which would cost about $25 billion for 32 ships, is just the kind of program Bush has indicated he would support because it incorporates a significant leap in technology.

"It certainly does move the Navy in the right direction - away from carrier groups and the Aegis-class destroyers," says Mr. Korb, who nonetheless recommends that Bush stop the program.

While many in Washington think that at least one of the big-ticket programs will have to go, some experts say that the Bush administration may be able to keep everything on the Pentagon's wish list, through a combination of increased spending, a shift of allocations, and the postponement or streamlining of some systems.

Paul Nisbet, an aerospace analyst at JSA Research in Newport, R.I., predicts that Bush and Rumsfeld will find the money to raise procurement spending to as much as $90 billion - a 50 percent increase. "Right now it's a train wreck in the making," Nisbet says, "but I think we'll see it resolved with most programs in tact."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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