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Superiority's Price Tag

THE biggest defense procurement plum of the rest of the century fell to Lockheed last week. The government's planned purchase of the company's Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF), or F-22, could reach $95 billion - topping even the price tag of the much-disputed B-2 stealth bomber. The Air Force contract was awarded at a time of considerable gloom in the defense industry as the Pentagon prepares to cut the size of the US military by a quarter by 1995. It also comes at a time of particular skepticism over huge arms contracts following cancellation of the Navy's A-12 attack plane by Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney earlier in the year because of cost overruns in excess of $1 billion.

The day before Air Force Secretary Donald Rice announced that Lockheed and its partners had won the ATF competition, the Congressional Budget Office released a study predicting that the new fighter's cost is likely to exceed spending limits imposed on the Pentagon by last fall's budget agreement.

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The stage is set, therefore, for some spirited debate in Congress. Many lawmakers were disgusted by the A-12 boondoggle and are in a mood to look hard at appropriations for other large weapons systems. The B-2, always vulnerable because of its expense and clearly aimed at a diminishing Soviet threat, could go down in flames. But the ATF has never had vocal opponents in Congress, and a credible case can be made for updating the Air Force's aging fighter wings.

The Air Force argues that the new plane, with its radar-evading technology, will be crucial to maintaining US "air superiority" well into the next century. But the questions have to be asked: Superiority over whom? And in what likely circumstances?

The Gulf war may have temporarily shelved some of the thinking that had been under way concerning a new, post-cold-war strategic plan. That thinking should be vigorously resumed as the country weighs the cost of items like the ATF.

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