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.
Similarly, the Navy can purchase the older model F/A-18 with only a marginal loss in capability at a savings of $17 billion. These two actions could provide more than enough budgetary space for the JSF.
Don't go by past spending
But even if one can justify the need for the new fighter and fit it into existing budgets, can this new multipurpose stealth aircraft be produced at an average cost of $50 million? Based upon past history, the answer would appear to be "no." The last Joint Air Force-Navy plane, the TFX or F-111, was never purchased by the Navy. Moreover, even single-service planes routinely exceed their projected cost by an average of 50 percent.
But the TFX experience of the 1960s is not relevant today. The Navy never wanted to be a part of that program and, when it was compelled to join, Navy leadership preferred the Boeing version to that of General Dynamics.
Much has changed over the past 30 years. The services now think and act much more jointly, and the Navy and Marine Corps know they must buy the JSF if they are to have a viable role in tactical air in the future.
Moreover, in this era of investigative journalism and intense congressional oversight, the procurement process could not be politicized the way it was in the TFX case when the White House forced the Pentagon to pick a Texas firm over Boeing.
Similarly, past estimates for the tactical aircraft were too low because companies bought into the Pentagon's specifications at low prices just to get contracts. The Joint Strike Fighter is a design-to-cost contract, not a traditional best or fixed price for a certain level of performance.
Moreover, in the past few years, aircraft manufacturers have made great strides in computer-aided design techniques and in the use of successful commercial practices. These techniques have enabled Lockheed Martin to cut the cost of producing F-16s by nearly 40 percent and allowed McDonnell Douglas to bring the upgraded F/A-18 in under budget.
The Joint Strike Fighter offers the best and most realistic opportunity for the US armed services to modernize their tactical air forces in a cost-effective way. It should receive the highest priority in the Pentagon's tactical aviation budget.
*Lawrence J. Korb, director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Policy Education in Washington, was assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan.