One by One

Sept. 1, 1999

In late June, the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee decided to shoot down the Air Force’s F-22 air superiority fighter. Details were worked out in secrecy over the next three weeks because the subcommittee did not want any advice or debate.

The Secretary of Defense and the Air Force were taken duly by surprise in July when the subcommittee voted against the $1.8 billion needed to purchase the first six F-22s.

Within days, the full appropriations committee and the House of Representatives concurred in the cut. The F-22’s fate hangs on the Senate-House appropriations conference in September.

The chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), said he did not seek to kill the F-22, only to secure a “pause.” The House approved $1.2 billion for continued development. However, restructuring and repricing the production program would add $6.5 billion to the overall cost and blow away the cost caps set by Congress. It would be difficult for the F-22 to survive.

In the case made by Lewis and his colleagues, two arguments stood out. They said that escalating cost has made the F-22 unaffordable, crowding other things out of the defense budget. They also said we do not need the F-22, that the current air superiority fighter, the F-15, is good enough.

The Air Force said that the MiG-29 and Su-27, which are deployed around the world in large numbers, are at near parity with the F-15, and that by 2005, the F-15 will be at a disadvantage to the Su-35 and export versions of the French Rafale and the European Consortium’s Eurofighter. It is also vulnerable to late model surface-to-air missiles.

As for affordability, Secretary of the Air Force F. Whitten Peters said that “at peak production, the Air Force would spend about 6 percent of our budget on the F-22. This is about the same percentage of our budget that went toward developing and buying the F-15 nearly 30 years ago. This equates to less than 2 percent of America’s national security budget.”

The appropriations committee blamed “ambitious technical goals” and optimistic cost estimates for F-22 overruns, but three program cuts, from 750 aircraft to 339, also hurt. According to Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, more than 40 percent of the $3.5 billion increase in F-22 development cost is due to Congressional action.

Senate leaders said the House cut would be hard to walk back in conference because the “savings” were reallocated to politically popular procurements the Air Force did not request. These were promptly claimed as trophies by Congressmen in whose districts the largess fell.

If you think the arguments being made against the F-22 sound familiar, you’re right. The pattern of the past 40 years is that major aircraft programs are regularly targeted, one by one, and attacked as unaffordable and unnecessary.

  • Twenty years ago, the Military Reform movement charged that the F-15 was too complex to operate or maintain, costing four times as much as a simple fighter that, used with “swarm” tactics, would be more effective than the F-15 and could even defeat it in combat. The reformers said the F-15 was justified only by “threat inflation,” particularly by exaggerating the capabilities of the MiG-25 Foxbat.

The F-15 went on to become the classic air superiority fighter of all time and is now cited as a leading reason why the F-22 is not needed.

  • A 1974 headline in The New Republic called the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System “The Plane That Would Not Die.” It castigated the Air Force for keeping AWACS alive when there was no mission for it to perform. The General Accounting Office advised Congress to cancel procurement funds and continue the program only in R&D. A 1981 article in The Wall Street Journal called AWACS “a pre-eminent example of the Pentagon’s disastrous high-tech procurement policies.”

As it turned out, the only problem with AWACS is that there aren’t enough aircraft to meet all the demands for its services.

  • The B-2 bomber was the most maligned weapon system in the history of military procurement. Congressional opponents tried repeatedly to kill it and complained of rising unit cost as the program was cut from 132 aircraft to 21. In 1997, misinterpreting a GAO report that was in itself flawed, news media spread the myth that B-2’s stealth coatings melted in the rain.

The criticism has slackened off considerably since the B-2’s spectacular performance in the Balkans.

Next through the chute will be the Joint Strike Fighter, a low-cost multimission aircraft designed primarily for ground attack. Its cost and performance depend on technology it inherits from the F-22. It relies on the F-22 for air superiority. If the F-22 goes down, the JSF takes a collateral hit.

In its turn, the JSF will be subjected to cuts and stretch-outs and criticized as costs go up. Existing aircraft will be declared sufficient to meet the need.

Looking back, the attacks on the F-15, AWACS, and the B-2 were not nearly as smart as they seemed to the attackers at the time.

In the appropriations conference in September, Congress has a historic opportunity to reverse the F-22 cut and avoid a monumental blunder.