What’s wrong with this picture? At $258 million apiece, the New York Times reports, the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor is “the most expensive fighter in history.” So defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld has proposed cutting 100 Raptors from production plans, saving $10 billion.
What’s wrong with the picture is that if you divide a hundred planes into Rumsfeld’s projected $10 billion in savings, you don’t get a price of $258 million each, you get $100 million. Which means one of two things: either the plane doesn’t cost as much as critics contend, or Rumsfeld is squandering a lot of money spent in the past to save a little money in the present. Actually, those are not mutually exclusive possibilities: the plane isn’t as expensive as widely reported, and Rumsfeld is squandering a huge investment — $40 billion to date by five administrations — to save a relatively small amount of money. Unfortunately, he’s also sacrificing U.S. air superiority in the bargain.
The concern about losing air superiority isn’t theoretical. The current top-of-the-line U.S. fighter is the F-15C, a plane designed during the Vietnam War that is now so decrepit it operates with flight restrictions when training due to metal fatigue. One F-15 pilot tells the story of how his cockpit instruments failed over Iraq because the insulation on old wiring had turned to powder, causing a short-circuit. In simulated combat with the air force of India a year ago, U.S. F-15’s were repeatedly beaten by Indian fighters. During the Balkan air war in 1999, F-15’s couldn’t operate safely in airspace defended by Serbian surface-to-air missiles unless they received constant protection from equally aged jamming aircraft.
For some reason, none of this information — the aging of the U.S. fighter fleet, the proliferation of sophisticated surface-to-air missiles, the losses suffered in exercises with supposedly inferior powers — ever penetrates the consciousness of those who oppose the F-22. The New York Times editorializes that the F-22 is “unneeded,” and Rumsfeld’s advisors tell him the U.S. has “excessive overmatch” in air combat. The critics think a combination of Cold War planes and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be enough to preserve air superiority indefinitely — even though defense secretary Bill Cohen warned Congress years ago that “the JSF was not designed for the air superiority mission, and redesigning it to do so will dramatically increase the cost” (JSF was optimized for attacking ground targets).
It’s bad enough that policymakers don’t grasp there is a real threat to U.S. command of the air. But the cavalier way in which fighter costs are discussed is nothing short of disgraceful. The budgetary debate focuses solely on saving money in the present, with no attention to how that might waste the investment already made. Journalists report the savings from cutting F-22 production with no consideration of the costly steps that might be needed to compensate for the loss of capability, or to keep Cold War fighters flying. And pundits assail the high cost of each Raptor when their own advocacy of a smaller program in prior years is the main reason for rising unit costs. If this is rational discourse, maybe the Enlightenment was overrated.
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