Isn’t it a relief to have Republicans running the Pentagon, since they’re the only party that has demonstrated a commitment to modernizing U.S. military forces?
Just kidding. It wasn’t Democrats who cut the B-2 bomber program from 132 planes to 20, it was President Bush’s father — who thereby squandered a $20 billion investment in stealth technology begun by the Carter Administration and saddled the nation with an aging fleet of bombers for the foreseeable future. It wasn’t Bill Perry who cut the C-17 transport buy from 210 to 120 airframes, it was Dick Cheney. The C-17 program now looks likely to be bigger than the original 210 planes, but it will cost taxpayers an extra $10 billion because of Cheney’s move. And it isn’t Democrats who are leading efforts to kill modernization of the Air Force’s 40-year-old tankers, it’s Republicans like John McCain and Robert Novak.
This history needs to be kept in mind if the current Pentagon team tries to reopen the issue of how many F/A-22 Raptors the Air Force should be buying. Raptor is the only stealthy air-superiority fighter the nation is building, but some of Secretary Rumsfeld’s advisors seem to think it’s out of step with military needs in the age of Osama and Saddam. In one sense they’re right — it was designed to fight competent adversaries, not fools. But one day a real enemy will come along, and today’s fighters won’t be able to cope.
The Air Force’s current top-of-the-line fighter, the F-15C, was designed in the 1960s and is so old it operates under flight restrictions. Other countries are building fighters just as good, and surface-to-air missiles that will have little trouble taking it down. Tiny Serbia managed to shoot the trailing decoys off B-1 bombers several times in Operation Allied Force, which is one reason why stealthy B-2’s were sent.
Even if the Air Force hadn’t expended over a third of the total program cost for the Raptor (which it has), there are sound reasons for not cutting it further. First, it’s already been cut from 750 planes to less than 300. Second, it really is far superior to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters that would have to take its place — faster, stealthier, more versatile. Third, cutting it would force the service to buy a lot more JSF’s to fill the gap in capabilities, producing little net savings given the F-35’s inferior performance.
The arguments that polemicists invoke today against F/A-22 are very similar to those used a generation ago against F-15. Too expensive. Too complicated. Too many glitches in development. As it turned out, though, F-15 was the finest fighter any nation ever fielded. It gave America global air superiority for a generation. If the government wants to assure air superiority for another generation — the sort of superiority that has kept enemy planes away from U.S. soldiers for fifty years and won the war in Iraq in a few weeks — it needs to buy another top-of-the-line fighter. It needs the Raptor. And it needs more than just a handful for show, it needs a force capable of policing the world.
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