The Pentagon’s senior civilian leadership is leaning toward cutting the department’s commitment to the F/A-22 Raptor multirole fighter. It’s a little hard to know what the emerging plan means, because there would be only minimal changes to the program through the end of the decade. But because the department would not set aside funds for Raptor beyond the 2004-2009 Future Years Defense Plan, it is possible the program could incur yet another cut in its production goal — this one taking it to less than a third of the original 750-plane objective.
The good news is that the likely production goal is well above the minimalist level of 180 Raptors cited as an option in the 2004 Defense Planning Guidance. The bad news is that there is no discernible operational or budgetary logic to the new level being proposed. Not only would the reduced number of fighters impair Air Force ability to preserve global air superiority beyond the Bush Administration’s tenure, but it would continue the Clinton Administration practice of investing huge funds in developing cutting-edge weapons, and then producing only a handful of “low-density/high-demand” systems for actual deployment.
Secretary Rumsfeld has derided the phrase “low-density/high-demand” as bureaucratese for “we didn’t buy enough.” But now his own advisors are suggesting that he follow precisely that path on one of the few systems likely to be truly decisive in future warfare. This is the same path that led to the B-2 bomber costing $2 billion per plane, and that squandered $10 billion on the C-17 transport during the Clinton years by reducing and then restoring original production goals.
Why would seasoned political managers do such a thing? The biggest reason is that the Pentagon is awash in rising entitlement and operational costs that are cutting into investment accounts. That isn’t the Bush Administration’s fault, and it is trying hard to fix the problem. But the other reason is that the administration has backed into a trendy notion of military transformation that leads it to make bad investment choices — the same sort of choices day traders were making on the NASDAQ a few years ago.
So here’s the state of play in OSD’s summer review of next-generation weapons programs: cut the Raptor; delay the Navy’s new carrier; cut the Army’s Comanche helicopter; and wait a year, then try to do in the Marine Corps’ V-22 tiltrotor — along with most of the armored-vehicle modernization program. And where would all the money saved go? To a science fair called “transformation” that would leave the next administration holding the bag for modernizing America’s aging arsenal.
If a Gore Administration were doing this, it isn’t hard to imagine what the response of Republicans would be. Maybe it’s time to look beyond all the hot air about transformation and ask what it will mean in a generation to be operating 60-year-old tankers, 40-year-old helicopters, and fighters that were designed during the Vietnam War. Raptor is the only aircraft that can assure global air superiority for another two generations – a capability critical to every other warfighting goal.
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