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Ambitious Plan For Jet Fighters Runs Into Stiff Budget Winds

In pursuit of its vision of American martial power in the coming century, the Pentagon is advocating the most ambitious and costly plan in aviation history to modernize the nation's jet-fighter force.

The blueprint is intended to preserve United States global supremacy in the skies into the middle of the 21st century. It calls for the US to deploy over the next 30 years four new warplanes in greater numbers, sophistication, and lethality than any of its closest competitors.

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The geopolitical import may be huge. But so are the job prospects.

To design and produce the titanium-ribbed, stealth aircraft will take thousands of workers nationwide. At full production, Boeing Corp. alone expects to employ 10,000 workers to make one of the new fighter jets under development.

While budget hawks say the US can't afford the grand plan, the Pentagon says the aircraft are needed to replace aging fighters and to cope with emerging threats, such as a proliferation of advanced air defense systems.

"If ... we have to go to war with a future adversary, we want it to be unfair," says Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Kaminski. "We want air dominance to be wholly and completely on our side."

But with the shrinking defense budget already facing a shortfall projected at up to $75 billion by 2002 and the main political parties committed to balancing the federal budget by the same year, serious doubts are growing about the Pentagon's plan.

As a result, tactical aviation is becoming a major focus of the debate over post-cold-war US military spending and strategic priorities. Some analysts predict that ultimately, the Defense Department will be forced to either scaled down its new aircraft programs or even cancel one in favor of extending the life of an existing fighter model.

"The probability is that they will have to trim back the programs," says Liesl Heeter of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, an independent think tank in Washington. But that won't happen without a fight. "There is going to be a lot of pressure from industry to keep them and there will be a lot of people on the Hill who will want to keep them," Ms. Heeter says.

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Critics, including some of the majority GOP's most avid defense hawks, say the US cannot afford the plan. They point to a recent study by the Congressional Budget Office, a watchdog agency, that says the cost of three of the new aircraft - the Navy's F-18 E/F, the Air Force's F-22 and the multi-service Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) - already exceeds the official price tag of $350 billion by $7 billion.

Furthermore, the study says, buying the planned total of 4,400 of the three aircraft will cost between $14 billion and $18 billion a year from 2008 to 2014. Such spending would consume up to 46 percent of the Pentagon's entire annual procurement budget. Tactical aircraft purchases now total only about 6 percent.

"These three programs ... will result in a huge bow wave of annual costs and annual production numbers," worried Rep. Curt Weldon (R) of Pennsylvania at a House subcommittee hearing last week.

Someone here order a jet?

The Navy is to take delivery this year from McDonnell-Douglas Corp. of the first two of a planned 1,000 F-18 E/Fs, dubbed the Super Hornet; the first four of a planned 438 F-22s are to be purchased from Lockheed Martin Corp. by the Air Force in 1999.

The Pentagon in November selected Lockheed Martin and Boeing Corp. to submit competing designs for the JSF, about 3,000 of which are to be delivered to the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Britain's Royal Air Force beginning in 2005.

Not yet known is the cost and number of the fourth aircraft, which is still in the concept stage. Known only as the "replacement interdiction aircraft," the plane would replace the Air Force's F-15Es and F-117s by 2030.

The Defense Department insists its plan is "affordable." It apparently believes it can bridge its budget gap through cost-cutting reforms, including privatizing maintenance and other services at military bases that are now performed by uniformed personnel.

Some analysts are skeptical that sufficient savings can be found. Michael O'Hanlon, an expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy research group, disputes a Defense Department report issued in November that projected savings of $30 billion by 2002.

"I say there is an annual shortfall of $15 billion at the turn of the century," forecasts Mr. O'Hanlon.

Debate over threats

The debate over the future of tactical aviation is not confined to cost. Also at issue is whether the new aircraft are suited to the kinds of conflicts and threats the US could face by the onset of the next century.

The Pentagon argues that the new aircraft fit with the US strategy of being able to fight and win two near-simultaneous wars in the Persian Gulf and the Korean peninsula as well as respond to smaller contingencies, such as peacekeeping operations.

"Air dominance will leverage all the other operations we will be conducting," Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before Representative Weldon's subcommittee.

Critics respond that the current inventory of US jet fighters is unrivaled and there is no looming threat that justifies locking the Defense Department into buying so many of the new ones.

Until there is a clearer picture of future threats, they say the Pentagon should substantially slow down its planned purchases of new planes. At the same time, they say, it should keep some existing models in operation longer by upgrading their avionics and sensor systems and making better use of advanced precision-guided weapons.

The savings from such an approach, analysts say, could then be used to develop new weaponry and tactics to cope with changes in technologies and threats.

The tactical aviation question could be decided by the "Quadrennial Force Review," a sweeping evaluation of US military strategy and force structure due to be released by the Pentagon in May. Some analysts say the military will try to use the study to preserve its current plan.

But O'Hanlon says that the review could provide the political cover needed by Defense Secretary William Cohen, the lone Republican in the Clinton administration and a moderate on defense spending, to change the fighter jet plan.

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