The B-2 Syndrome Rides Again

July 1, 2002

Sometime last spring, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld decided to take a closer look at the F-22 air dominance fighter and a few other weapons. He told the services on April 15 that the US could not afford all existing programs and new “transformational” systems, too.

Air Force leaders thus were not surprised when Rumsfeld on May 3 formally ordered a far-reaching review of the F-22 program.

Within days, Pentagon insiders had leaked word that production might be capped at 180 aircraft–far below USAF’s requirement of 339 fighters. The sources noted that it was just an option. The fate of the Raptor would be decided only after extensive, high-level Pentagon debate this fall.

Rumsfeld has indicated he doesn’t plan to kill this stealthy successor to the F-15. He approved $5.2 billion for F-22 work in 2003. However, the final fleet size is up for grabs. As Rumsfeld has noted, “The big debate is not whether [to buy F-22s] but how many.”

If the review makes Air Force leaders twitchy, they manage to hide it. Air Force Secretary James G. Roche says Rumsfeld only wants “good answers” to fair questions. Gen. John P. Jumper, Chief of Staff, welcomes the challenge. “If we can’t defend [the F-22] properly, shame on us,” he says.

No one doubts Roche and Jumper will make a strong case. The question is whether facts alone will be enough to keep the Raptor from getting mauled in the budget wars. The record of the past does not encourage optimism.

In the 1990s, DOD undertook F-22 evaluations on three occasions–during the Major Aircraft Review of 1990, the Bottom-Up Review of 1993, and the Quadrennial Defense Review of 1997. All three reviews soon were followed by significant cuts.

The Air Force in the 1980s had a goal of 750 F-22s. In the wake of the MAR, BUR, and QDR, revised production goals were 648, 438, and 339, respectively. In other words, well more than half of the fleet vanished.

Arguably, the first reduction was justifiable on strategic grounds; Soviet power was on the wane. However, the last two were seen, even at the time, as out-and-out budget-cut drills.

Turbulence created by these successive rounds of program reductions and stretch-outs had a long-lasting effect on the F-22 project. They helped produce increases in unit costs and developmental delays.

Fred Frostic, a former DOD official and now defense consultant in private industry, suggests that these reassessments backfired. “The reviews … brought instability and raised the cost of the very systems that lead to the military capabilities needed for the future,” he said.

If the first three cuts were damaging, the next one could be fatal if it drops the goal to anything like 180 fighters. This might drive the cost of each F-22 beyond a politically sensitive threshold. At that point, it probably would fall into what Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, calls “the B-2 Syndrome.”

Inouye, a staunch airpower advocate, notes DOD first wanted to buy several hundred B-2 stealth bombers but reduced the goal to 132 aircraft. Then it was cut to 75 for budget reasons and cut again to 20, again for budget reasons. Each time, the program’s sunk costs were spread over fewer airplanes, and unit cost thus grew dramatically. It wasn’t long before critics could assail the B-2 as a “$2 billion bomber.”

The B-2 never recovered from that political disaster. Few believe the F-22 would fare any better under similar circumstances.

That anyone would consider stopping at 180 F-22s is puzzling in its own right, in light of its capabilities and the Air Force’s mounting concerns about aging aircraft.

The fighter combines stealth with supercruise–sustained cruise at supersonic speeds–and all-seeing avionics to dominate air-to-air combat as no other aircraft. Jumper said the F-22 also would be called on to “kick down the door” in a theater of operations, clearing a path for bombers and other aircraft.

Even 339 F-22s won’t be sufficient to meet USAF’s needs. The Air Force would not be able to fully equip all 10 of the service’s Aerospace Expeditionary Forces, according to Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf, director of operational requirements. In remarks to the newsletter Inside the Air Force, Leaf noted that just providing a “bare bone” minimum of one squadron per AEF would take 381 F-22s. The preferred level of 1.5 squadrons would take 572 Raptors.

This nation has not fielded a new air superiority fighter since 1974, when the F-15 came into the inventory. By the time the F-22 is ready in 2005, the average F-15 will be 26 years old. The F-15 simply will not be able to operate past 2010 and survive against new air-to-air fighter and advanced surface-to-air missiles.

For the United States military, air dominance is not optional. Without it, nothing else works. Without the F-22, the Air Force will gradually lose its ability to dominate the skies.

Secretary Rumsfeld is right to take a hard look at costly programs. Let us hope that the Pentagon’s F-22 review is thorough, deep, fair, and tough-minded. Such a probe would recognize that the United States has already invested $30 billion in the F-22 project, that the payoff in large numbers of fighters is now at hand, that the Air Force needs them in sufficient numbers, and that we should get on with the job of building them.