The biggest program in the Pentagon’s weapons-purchasing plan for the next 20 years is the Joint Strike Fighter. The Clinton Administration wants to buy 2,852 of the stealthy fighter-bombers in three different versions for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the cost of developing and building all three JSF variants will be $152-223 billion in today’s dollars.
That’s big money even by Pentagon standards – – money future administrations will have to pay. But there doesn’t seem to be much support for JSF outside the Marine Corps (which wants a vertical takeoff and landing aircraft to free it from Navy aircraft carriers). The Navy and Air Force, which are supposed to receive 80% of the planes, have other priorities. Industry sees a bottomless pit of investment requirements with no certainty of a payoff.
To make matters worse, the JSF doesn’t look all that well-suited to the war-fighting requirements of a new century. The short legs of the Air Force version will make it dependent upon foreign bases that may not be available in wartime. JSF won’t have the air-superiority capabilities of an F-22. Its internal bombload for its primary ground-attack mission will be two satellite-guided munitions, compared to dozens of such bombs that can be carried on a B-2 (JSF can carry more bombs on its wings, but then it’s not stealthy).
Joint Strike Fighter probably isn’t going to work out. Its political and military support is too weak to sustain such a huge program, particularly when the inevitable cost escalation sets in. So before the Pentagon sets off down this very problematic path, Congress and the nation ought to be aware of all the costs associated with the JSF “opportunity”. Here’s what the military could have if it took a pass on the Joint Strike Fighter:
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