Past Trumps Present
Politics keeps Cold War weapons alive, sucking resources from the battles at hand.
Up to its ears in insurgents in Iraq and terrorists worldwide, the Bush administration issued a comprehensive military strategy and a spending plan focused primarily on fighting other nations using traditional, even outdated, weapons. First came the Feb. 3 release of the third Pentagon Quadrennial Defense Review, and a few days later, the fiscal 2007 Defense budget. Carl Conetta, Project on Defense Alternatives co-director, points out that the 2005 QDR is supposed to "connect our military strategy with our force development plans and, in turn, connect these with current and future budgets." But, he says, the latest version "is long on assertion and short on quantification-'short' as in utterly lacking."
Despite the likelihood that future U.S. conflicts will resemble the unconventional warfare of Iraq and Afghanistan, the QDR tends to treat these as anomalies. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cast the QDR as a "roadmap for change, leading to victory" as the United States enters the "fifth year of this global war [on terrorism]." Yet it puts at least as much emphasis on a possible threat posed by China, which would require costly weapons systems to rebuff.
Some notions in the latest QDR and the fiscal 2007 Defense budget were widely applauded. Recommended boosts for Special Forces weapons and personnel are examples. But the Pentagon's nearly $440 million request contained some shockers, especially the increase in spending on major weapons programs-including Cold War-era holdovers-by $8 billion.
Defense Policy Board member Newt Gingrich wrote in a March 4 op-ed in The Washington Post that a focus on the continued funding for these weapons systems hampers the QDR process and unfairly "reduces change in national security to a narrow and inaccurate calculation." Among the most controversial line items was a $2.2 billion down payment for 60 Air Force F-22s. At $339 million per plane, the F-22 is an awesome piece of machinery. With pilot-customized flat-screen displays, super-stealth ability, next-generation tracking radar and the capability to go supersonic without using afterburners, the F-22 defines tactical air superiority.
But even a few proponents will concede that whatever its merits, the F-22 is still in the mix because it's also a masterpiece of political engineering. As a recent Congressional Research Service report (RL31673) noted, the threat the F-22 was designed to take on-the Soviet Air Force-is gone and isn't coming back soon. But with 30 major subcontractors and 4,500 suppliers spread out over 48 states directly accounting for 28,000 jobs and indirectly accounting for more than 100,000 others, the report said, the F-22 is congressionally bulletproof despite its astronomical costs.
The F-22 has experienced cost overruns well past the $1 billion mark, forcing the Air Force to scale back the program. The Government Accountability Office has found that the Air Force couldn't account for $1.3 billion and that the F-22 program needs a new financial model. But the QDR and Defense budget treat the program as sacrosanct-even adding four more planes. This despite the fact that insurgent forces, which draw most of the military's attention today, do not "train, enlist or use fighter pilots [or] employ fighter forces," as notes retired Air Force Col. Everest Riccioni, who helped with the design of the F-16.
But F-22 advocates, including Gingrich, contend the aircraft is necessary in the event of a potential war with China, North Korea or Iran. Its utility has less to do with air-to-air combat than "survivability against anti-aircraft missiles," he says. The QDR doesn't even entertain the notion that such a costly program born of a bygone era should be reconsidered. In fact, the F-22 merely gets one line: "Restructure the F-22A program and extend production through fiscal year 2010 with a multiyear acquisition contract, to ensure the department does not have a gap in fifth-generation stealth capabilities." This means prime contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., would stretch out production. After the budget was released, Lockheed's stock hit its highest mark since mid-2002.
The QDR and budget debates have begun to give some previous boosters pause. "I think it's a crying shame we're dumping money into something we're probably never going to use at a time when it's better spent somewhere else," says a recently retired senior Air Force officer. Adding to his hesitation and that of other backers was a recent revelation by Air Combat Command chief Gen. Ronald E. Keys. At the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium in early February, Keys said the Air Force is seriously considering a Lockheed proposal to sell F-22s to a few overseas allies.
"This is the most high-tech plane with super-secret, gee-whiz gizmos we've ever designed and built, and if anyone suggested it was proper to sell it overseas even a year ago, they'd have been thrown out of the room," says a veteran civilian Air Force official who asked not to be identified. "Sell this overseas and you could very easily end up with the following situation: The fighter we've been building to go up against China is the one we end up flying against after the technology has been stolen from someone else we sold it to and then reverse-engineered and produced by the [Chinese] Air Force."
Off the Chopping Block
Some of the most controversial weapons systems escaped cuts in the fiscal 2007 Defense budget request.
- F-22 Raptor: $2.8 billion
- The Air Force gets four more aircraft than last year, bringing the total on order to 183.
- SSN-774 Virginia-Class Submarine: $2.6 billion
- The Pentagon says two new ships a year are necessary even though many argue the United States already has achieved post-Cold War submarine supremacy.
- DD(X) Destroyer: $3.4 billion
- Experts find this a low estimate of the cost of constructing two ships, expecting the real price to come closer to $4 billion apiece.
- CVN-21 Aircraft Carrier: $1.1 billion
- This ship will replace the USS Enterprise when it is retired in eight years. Critics ask whether the Navy can't make do with the remaining 11 carrier groups.
- Missile Defense: $10.4 billion
- Although still not operational after decades of development, the program would get double the Special Forces increase.