Should We Pay $219 Billion for This Plane?
The Pentagon's decision to award $2.2 billion to Lockheed Martin and Boeing to design and build demonstration models of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has revived the debate over whether the armed services need and can afford a new generation of fighter aircraft.
Opponents argue the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps have sufficient tactical aircraft in their inventory to deal with existing threats. And, given the size of projected defense budgets, the Pentagon cannot afford a new $200 billion program. Moreover, the projected unit cost of about $50 million is totally unrealistic.
While all these arguments have some validity, they are essentially incorrect.
It is certainly true that the US currently has the best fighter aircraft in the world and no other nation can hope to compete with us in the foreseeable future. However, our tactical air force is growing old. The average age of our fighters will grow from eight years in 1990 to about 15 in the year 2000. By the time the JSF moves into production, the average age of existing US tactical aircraft will be about 20 years. It makes good economic and strategic sense to replace planes like the F-16, the F/A-18, the A-6, and the AV-8, which were developed in the 1960s and 1970s, with a multirole aircraft having more advanced electronics and more stealth characteristics, particularly if the new plane is reasonably priced. The unit cost of the JSF is essentially the same as the F-16s and much less than the newest model F/A-18s.
Make savings elsewhere
There is no doubt the JSF will be costly, even if the Pentagon can hold down the price to $50 million per copy for 3,000 fighters. When the cost of other tactical aircraft programs is added, the military could spend $350 billion on new fighters over the next 30 years. Over the next five years alone, spending for tactical aircraft could exceed projected budget ceilings by $15 billion.
The answer to this budgetary situation is not to cancel the cost-effective JSF but to rethink the need for the F-22 and upgraded F/A-18 programs. The Air Force plans to buy 438 F-22 Air Superiority fighters at a total cost of $73 billion. The Navy wants to buy 1,000 upgraded F/A-18s for $90 billion.
None of these programs is as necessary or as cost-effective as the JSF. With the new fifth-generation Russian air superiority fighter postponed until at least 2020, the Chinese lacking the technical expertise to build one, and Iran, Iraq, and North Korea unable to afford an air superiority fighter, the Air Force could easily reduce the F-22 buy to 100, thus saving some $40 billion.