The Best Weapons Money Can Buy

Originally published in the Los Angeles Times on August 13, 2005

According to media reports, the Defense Department is considering canceling two supersonic jet fighters that are on the Pentagon’s drawing board: the Air Force’s F/A-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

There is no doubt that even with the defense budget at historical highs, the Pentagon cannot afford the $1.5 trillion worth of weapons that the military services would like to purchase. However, although the Defense Department is correct in trying to slash the F/A-22, it is dead wrong in trying to save money by canceling the Joint Strike Fighter.

The F/A-22 Raptor is the most unnecessary weapon system being built by the Pentagon. In fact, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld tried to do away with it in the summer of 2002 but backed off when his Air Force secretary threatened to resign over the issue.

It was originally designed to achieve air superiority over Soviet fighter jets, which will never be built. In 1985, the Air Force claimed that it could build about 750 of these stealth fighters for $26 billion. Over the last 20 years, the cost of the total program has continued to grow even as the number of planes to be purchased has declined. Just a year ago, the Air Force said it could purchase 275 Raptors for $72 billion. Now, the Pentagon says it can buy 179 planes for about $64 billion, raising the price per plane by about $100 million — for an unnecessary aircraft.

The performance of the current generation of Air Force fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq makes it clear that the Air Force already has the capability to achieve air superiority against all enemies. The Taliban, Al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents do not have jet fighters for the Raptor to conquer.

The Air Force has recognized this and has added a ground attack — or bombing — mission to the Raptor. But using the world’s most expensive fighter, which travels at twice the speed of sound, for attacking ground targets is neither cost-effective nor technically practical.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is another story. It is an ambitious program to build three related, but slightly different, aircraft for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Current plans call for building 2,443 planes for all three services at a cost of $245 billion, or about $100 million per plane — about one-third the cost of the F/A-22.

This aircraft should be built. It is more cost-effective to produce the new fighter system than to upgrade older planes, which by 2010 will need to be replaced, or buy F/A-22s. Moreover, because all the variants for the F-35 use common parts, it is more affordable than allowing each of the services to develop its own unique aircraft. Finally, because so many other countries are willing to purchase the fighter, it will improve our operations with allied forces.

However, given the technological challenges of trying to build three fairly different planes from one design, the program should not be rushed. This country’s overwhelming numerical and qualitative advantages in tactical aircraft will not soon be challenged. And delaying initial production will not only produce a better product but also will save billions over the next five years.

There’s more that the Defense Department should do to bring the Pentagon budget under control. Rumsfeld should look at finding less-expensive alternatives for at least three other systems: the $3-billion SSN-774 Virginia-class submarine, intended to combat the next generation of Soviet submarines, which now won’t be built; the $3.3-billion DD(X) destroyer, which is sized more for open-ocean warfare against another naval superpower than its stated mission of providing fire support for forces ashore in crowded and dangerous coastal areas; and the $100-million V-22 Osprey, which the secretary of Defense in 1991 tried to cancel because of cost concerns and technical difficulties that still have not been overcome. Canceling these programs, along with the F/A-22, while saving the Joint Strike Fighter will save money without endangering national security.

Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information. He served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration (1981-1985).

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow