"Technology is our edge" says Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Ferrell, Air Force deputy chief of staff for plans and programs.
Most military personnel would agree. But with the Pentagon's limited modernization account unlikely to grow much larger anytime soon, just what technologies the military should be investing in has been the source of bitter debate.
The Navy last summer circulated a paper pointing out that aircraft carriers have been used in 10 separate crises since 1993, while the Air Force, B-2 and B-1 bombers have not been used at all, except for the B-2's appearance in the 1997 Rose Bowl parade and a number of air shows.
The paper was in response to an Air Force study that showed it is cheaper to maintain 20 B-2 bombers than an aircraft carrier. Comparing bombers and carriers may seem absurd to an outsider, but it has become part of the tit for tat that in recent years has characterized the internal jockeying for diminishing resources at the Defense Department.
The bickering was particularly intense as the Pentagon put together the Quadrennial Defense Review, released last May, which outlined the Defense Department's plans to meet anticipated military requirements early in the next century.
The QDR sealed DoD'scommitment to build the F-22 tactical fighter to replace the Air Force's aging F-15 fleet; the F/A-18 E/F strike fighter for the Navy; and the Joint Strike Fighter, which will eventually replace Air Force F-16s, Navy F-14s and Marine Corps AV-8Bs and F/A-18s.
Recognizing that all three programs were not affordable at levels initially planned, the QDR scaled back the number of aircraft DoD intends to purchase. Even so, the programs will commit the agency's modernization funds well into the future, when requirements may be very different from what they are today.
"We can learn a lot about weapons modernization from the Gulf War," says a senior Pentagon official. "If ever there was a war to use all of our [non-nuclear] weapons, this was it. And we didn't use B-1s. We didn't use B-2s. And the stuff we did use didn't always work as advertised."
The air campaign to force the Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait was very effective, but it was not the unqualified success the Pentagon and contractors initially claimed. A General Accounting Office report issued earlier this year, "Operation Desert Storm, Evaluation of the Air Campaign," shows many claims made about aircraft and weapons were exaggerated.
The F-117, for example, the first combat aircraft to exploit stealth technology, was said by DoD, the Air Force and manufacturer Lockheed to have had an 80 percent bomb hit rate. GAO determined the hit rate was between 41 percent and 60 percent.
Defense Department and contractor claims of a one-target, one-bomb capability for laser-guided munitions turned out not to be true. And the all-weather and adverse-weather sensors designed to identify targets and guide weapons were either less capable than DoD reported or incapable when employed at high altitudes or in clouds, smoke, dust or high humidity.
GAO found that all aircraft used during the campaign had strengths and limitations, not necessarily commensurate with their costs.
"No F-117s were lost or damaged; it was the platform of choice among planners for nighttime strikes against stationary, point targets, yet it was employable in only highly limited conditions," GAO found. "The much older, nonstealthy F-111F achieved a somewhat higher target hit rate than the F-117 against targets attacked by both with the same type of munition. The low-cost A-10s and F-16s made large contributions in terms of missions flown and bomb tonnage delivered and performed as well on other measures, such as survivability rates.
"There was no pattern of high-cost aircraft offering consistently better performance in adverse weather. Indeed, the more costly aircraft with [laser-guided bomb] capability were more likely to be vulnerable to weather degradation than were aircraft that used unguided ordnance."
GAO is now conducting a study of military force structure and modernization plans that will be released next spring.
Defense Secretary William Cohen defends the Pentagon's plans, saying new, more advanced fighters are necessary because the United States' air superiority will erode as potential adversaries obtain advanced weapons.
"Replacing today's inventory of aircraft with the current generation of aircraft, as some have suggested we do, is not an acceptable approach," Cohen said in a written statement to Government Executive.
Congress, too, is committed to buying the three fighters, as well as some things the Pentagon doesn't want. For the third year, B-2 supporters in Congress have pushed for more stealth bombers. And when the Air Force postponed plans last summer to station B-2 bombers overseas because it was more difficult than expected to maintain the planes, radar-evading skin, service officials were put in the awkward position of defending the plane while asking Congress to stop funding more planes.
The cost of these weapons is not just measured in dollars, but in opportunities missed elsewhere. For instance, Congress will require the Navy to spend an extra $700 million to build a destroyer it does not want (in Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's home state of Mississippi), but will not fund the $100 million Maritime Support Demonstrator program, or "arsenal ship," that some believe could revolutionize naval warfare.
"As technology provides you with more options, how do you make decisions to stop funding [some] things and start funding new things that may pay off?" asks Ferrell. "It's going to become a much more difficult problem."
The problem is bigger than that, says one Army officer. "I wouldn't mind that we're buying any of these weapons, because I think you can never be too prepared or have too strong a defense. But when the Army finds itself carrying the bulk of the load in Bosnia and Haiti. . . and we can't find the money to replace 25-year-old trucks or even keep them running, then we've got a real problem. And all the precision weapons in the world won't help."