You know the budget wars are heating up when a senior Republican senator starts attacking weapons programs important to other legislators in his own party. That’s what happened yesterday, when Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss assailed Pentagon purchases of Boeing’s carrier-based F/A-18 Super Hornet, saying the plane is “obsolete” and “will be of limited to no value in any future threat scenario.” In a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Chambliss argued that if the Pentagon failed to move out smartly on purchasing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for the Navy and other services, “we run the certain risk of ceding tactical air superiority in future conflicts.”
That’s pretty strong stuff. What Chambliss is in effect saying is that if the Navy doesn’t get F-35s, then there’s not much point to operating aircraft carriers because the principal tactical aircraft they currently host will not be able to assert U.S. control of the skies over future battle zones. His views on the matter are undoubtedly influenced by the fact that Georgia has a big stake in the success of F-35 — parts of the plane are manufactured in Marietta — but the senator is reflecting a view shared by a fair number of military experts. They contend that airframes lacking the integrated stealth and situational awareness of an F-35 don’t have much chance of surviving in the future, so even though the Super Hornet looks world-class today its days are numbered.
Navy leaders continue to support purchase of the F-35C, the carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter, but they don’t seem quite so alarmed about the future threat environment for their tactical aircraft. Even if they were, there’s a school of thought that says the sea services should be moving out more smartly on unmanned combat aircraft, because no U.S. aircraft driven by human pilots is likely to have the legs and longevity to operate effectively in places like the Western Pacific 20 years from now. Personally, I think we should stick with the plan — replace the older F/A-18s with F-35s, and then press ahead on unmanned technology. As I argued in my Forbes commentary this week, unmanned aircraft aren’t ready for the rigors of aerial combat and won’t be for some time. Super Hornet seems to be performing fine right now; the question is whether it will continue to do so in the future as threats evolve. F-35 is the vital middle step between non-stealthy tactical aircraft and unmanned planes.
What’s striking about the letter from Senator Chambliss, though, is his tone. He’s sending a message to the senior political leadership of the defense department that if they don’t get their act together on moving F-35 forward expeditiously, he’s going to start taking prisoners. The implication of the last sentence in his letter — “I look forward to continuing the dialogue on this issue, as well as with Dr. Carter during his upcoming confirmation process” — is pretty clear. If you’ve followed Saxby Chambliss’ political career, you know he’s not the sort of political player you want to get crosswise with. He tends to prevail in any fight where he chooses to engage.
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