Thousands of aerospace workers in Texas and Georgia who thought that six positive reviews of the Air Force’s next-generation Raptor fighter would be sufficient to secure their future employment are in for a shock. Proponents of radical transformation in the Pentagon plan to do yet another study, and this time they’ve figured out how to stack the deck so that they get the answer they want. The answer they want is a persuasive pretext for killing the program.
This latest bureaucratic maneuver to do in the Air Force’s top modernization program is contained in an Office of Management and Budget request that the Pentagon “commission an independent, in-depth study” of the Raptor and the Army’s Comanche helicopter. The request, which was undoubtedly generated as a result of back-channel communications between OMB and Raptor critics in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, would shift analysis of the program to a venue where supporters can’t play.
How do I know this? First, those same critics have complained that their views concerning Raptor did not prevail in the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review and 2002 Major Weapons Review, and said they would try again to cut the program. Second, the draft terms of reference for the study are identical to the framework used by critics in the past. Third, selection and oversight of the organization doing the independent assessment is vested solely in OMB and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. And fourth, the draft methodology states that “the services should be required to provide timely and accurate data … but should have no other input or interaction.”
In other words, it’s a stacked deck. The outcome is preordained by the way the study is organized and conducted. The last time the Office of the Secretary of Defense tried such a transparent ruse, the Secretary of the Air Force threatened to resign. But critics sense he has been weakened by political controversies, so they’re mounting another assault. Their tactics are very similar to subterfuges adopted in previous administrations to cutback the B-2 bomber and C-17 transport — moves that policymakers later came to regret.
In this case, the damage could be truly profound. Air dominance is the most important capability enabling every other facet of warfare, and the Air Force has repeatedly stated that it cannot assure future air dominance without the Raptor. Its existing top-of-the-line fighter, the F-15C, was designed during the Nixon Administration. The plane is flying under flight restrictions due to metal fatigue, and other signs of aging are readily apparent. It is increasingly vulnerable to agile surface-to-air missiles being deployed from China to Serbia.
For some reason, critics can’t seem to grasp the possibility that if U.S. fighters grow decrepit, air supremacy will be at risk. Despite the shock of 9-11 and not finding what everyone expected in Iraq, they think they can reliably project military requirements decades into the future. They also don’t understand that many of their imagined alternatives to manned fighters simply won’t work against adversaries more clever than the brain-dead Baathists. This is just the latest evidence that much of the Bush Administration’s defense posture is a faith-based alternative to clear thinking.
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