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Fighter Mafia Alums on the Defense Budget

"Fighter Mafia Alums on the Defense Budget" was first published by


Today, America spends more on defense than at any time since the end of World War II, based on the Pentagon's own official budget data. The previous high point in post-World War II defense spending was 1952—during the Korean War—at $589 billion in today's dollars. The Pentagon's budget request for the current fiscal year totals $670 billion, or a substantial 14 percent above the previous high water mark.

U.S. defense spending is now also larger than the rest of the world—combined. The CIA's 2007 Word Fact Book estimates all other nations to spend about $400 billion on defense. That amount is for not just our potential opponents, whoever they might be; that's the entire rest of the world.

We are told we must worry about China and Russia and prepare against them; something we should really lose sleep over is how they can be such a major concern—to those who point them out as looming threats—with defense budgets of just $81 billion and $21 billion, respectively, according to the CIA.

A similar basis for worrying is why the Pentagon's budget has trended up over the decades, while its forces have been shrinking. Today, we have the smallest defense inventory since 1946. For example, with a spending level considerably higher than in 1985 when the Cold War raged and after Ronald Reagan increased the Defense Department's budget, we have now 10 active Army divisions, not the 17 we had in 1985; less than 300 naval combatants—compared to 542 in 1985, and we have just over 12 active Air Force tactical air wings, not 25.

A major reason is incompetence.

According to the "scorecard" of the Office of Management and Budget on how well U.S. agencies are run, the Pentagon has ranked among the worst since the ratings began. By bad management, don't think of just "waste, fraud, and abuse" and incompetent book-keeping—the measures OMB uses. Add to those the incessant decisions in the Pentagon and Congress that favor bureaucratic and selfish interests, rather than the needs of war. Those latter factors provide most of the explanation for why the Pentagon budget delivers less for more.

Consider just one example; the Air Force's F-22 fighter aircraft. It began in the early 1980s as the Air Force's solution to maintaining air superiority over the Soviet Union during the Cold War. However, a lot of history unfolded between the "Raptor's" conception back then and the Air Force's announcement on December 12, 2007 that after more than two decades of development the F-22 had finally reached "full operational capability," meaning that it was ready to go to war.

There is, however, no war for it to go to. While there are, of course, two very real ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, the F-22 is yet to fly a single sortie over the skies of either country. Nor has the Air Force announced any intention to send the F-22 to either theater.

The Air Force is quite right to keep the F-22 far away from those conflicts. The airplane is irrelevant to both, since its primary mission—to shoot down enemy aircraft—is useless against our opponents—al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other insurgents—who have no air force and don't want one. Worse, if the F-22 were it to appear in those theaters, it would almost certainly harm our war efforts. It is not just that its huge logistics tail would strain our already overstretched support forces in both theaters.

But also, the F-22 has operating limitations. While it can carry two medium sized bombs to attack ground targets, it is a capability so modest our opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan might not even notice. It would also be ungracious to compare the F-22 to the ridiculously cheap, simple A-10 close air support aircraft that is built specifically for the ground support role and that has been indispensable for supporting soldiers in combat in both wars. It would be even more bad-mannered to point out that each A-10 can deliver per day eight times, or more, the payload that an F-22 can.

More to the point, the F-22 would be counter-productive. Data from Afghanistan indicate that U.S. and allied forces may have killed more innocent civilians than the enemy has in the past year, and from Iraq we read report after report of civilians killed as a result of US action. A major part of those "collateral" civilian casualties come from aircraft flying too fast and too high to positively identify exactly what they are guiding their munitions to. As such, the F-22 is too "thin-skinned" to endure ground fire, even from assault rifles, and it is too expensive to risk flying close enough to the ground to identify targets. In a form of conflict where winning over the civilian population is key to success, F-22 participation— along with that of other high flying, high speed aircraft—may help the enemy more than us.

By keeping the F-22 at its US bases, the Air Force is doing our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan a great favor.

Counter-productivity in 21st century warfare notwithstanding, the F-22's advocates would leap to argue that in its intended role—shooting down enemy fighters—it is unsurpassed.

Let's pretend for the moment that there exists, or will soon, an enemy air force for which the F-22 would be relevant. How, then, could the F-22 help?

We contend that as an individual performer in real world air-to-air combat, the F-22 is a huge disappointment. The Air Force vociferously disagrees—based on its hypothesis that air wars can be fought and won by long range, radar-controlled missiles fired at enemies you cannot see or visually—that is, reliably—identify. This "beyond-visual-range," radar-missile hypothesis has been tested in real world combat, and it has failed repeatedly. If ever the F-22 finds itself in an air war against a serious opponent, all of us will find out who is right.

Here, we will focus on three issues about which there can be little argument and that explain how the F-22 contributes mightily to our shrinking, less ready-to-fight forces, while bringing vastly increased cost.

Force Size: Back in the 1980s, the U.S. Air Force planned to buy 750 F-22s to fight the Soviet air force. For development and procurement, Congress is generously providing $65.3 billion, a huge sum. However, because no stakeholder was interested in exercising discipline over the design, weight, and cost of each F-22, that $65.3 billion will only buy 184 aircraft, not enough to be a real threat to any major opposing air power.

Moreover, given the need to maintain a training base in the US and considering the demonstrated daily sortie rate of similarly complex aircraft already in our inventory, the Air Force will be lucky to be able to fly 60 F-22 sorties per day at the start of an overseas conflict against a major opponent. That number will shrink as inevitable combat attrition and maintenance down-time take their toll. The force size that the F-22 program generates is simply too puny to register against the major air threat the F-22 advocates hypothesize.

Pilot Skill: Unfortunately, we can expect that same tiny F-22 force to attrite all too rapidly in combat for the simple reason that the Air Force no longer adequately supports pilot training. F-22 pilots get only ten to twelve hours of flight training per month. When we provided 20 to 25 hours per month to train pilots for Vietnam, our pilots complained—rightly—it was inadequate. At the height of their prowess in the 1960s and '70s, the Israelis gave their fighter pilots 40 to 50 hours of flight training per month.

The history of air warfare shows all too clearly that the most important determinant of who wins and who dies in an aerial dogfight is pilot skill, not aircraft performance. Because they have raided pilot training accounts to feed increasingly voracious procurement programs (such as the F-22), Congress and the Air Force have virtually guaranteed high pilot losses for us in any hypothesized, large scale air war.

If the advocates of more air power for the U.S. were serious about winning and saving American pilots lives, they would double, then triple, the amount of money available for pilot flight training before spending a single penny on new aircraft. Revealing its real priorities, in help pay for the pork it added to the 2008 DOD appropriations act, Congress cut air force training by $400 million.

Unit Cost: The current plan to buy 184 F-22s for $65.3 billion calculates to $354.9 million per aircraft. The Air Force contends that such a calculation is unfair; it distributes the cost of all prior testing and development equally to every aircraft. The Air Force would rather use a calculation for prospective purchases—what it calls "flyaway" cost, which considers the development costs to have been sunk and that the only cost that should count now is the cost-to-go. Various estimates are circulating in the Pentagon to buy an additional 198 F-22s at a "flyaway" cost that varies from $176.8 million to $216.3 million per copy. (Even at the lower range, it would still make these new F-22s the most expensive fighter aircraft ever bought by any nation—except for, of course, earlier F-22s.)

The F-22's cost history makes it painfully obvious that we should consider the higher end of the currently advertised cost band to be a cost floor for any new purchase. At every stage, the F-22 has cost more than promised. For example, when Lockheed and the Air Force were pushing a three year contract to buy 60 aircraft now being delivered, "fact sheets" and lobbying materials widely distributed on Capitol Hill were promising a "flyaway" price of $130 million per aircraft; instead, Congress was required to actually appropriate approximately $180 million per copy. (In 1986, the Air Force originally promised a "flyaway" cost of $35 million.)

Time has not been kind to the F-22; neither to its costs, nor to its relevance. Even in the wars the F-22 advocates postulate against a Chinese or Russian air force, the F-22 is deeply flawed, and its ultimate impact is to degrade our most important assets in the air, our pilots and their skill.

The most prominent mission that Lockheed and the Air Force are currently pushing to buy more F-22s is demonstrated in recent newspaper articles and advertisements. Nowhere do these talk about a dangerous new air threat that explains the need for more F-22s. Instead, they focus on the 44 states that will receive corporate spending and jobs. Put another way, it is Congress' lust for pork and the perverted thinking that jobs and profits should drive defense spending, not the threat, that is driving the campaign to buy more F-22s.

The overall defense budget is stuffed to the gills with similar examples. Budget-inflating, war-irrelevant, dubious-performing, and pork-ridden examples in the other military services include the Navy's DDG-1000 destroyer, the Army's Future Combat System, and the Marines Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. In fact, such programs are now the norm; it is the war-relevant, cost-effective ones that are scarce to the point of extinction.

There should be no doubt how we got to where we are.

—Winslow Wheeler, Pierre Sprey, and James Stevenson

(Editor's note: Pierre Sprey was one of three designers who conceived and shaped the F-16; he also led the technical side of the US Air Force's A-10 design concept team. James Stevenson is former editor of the Navy Fighter Weapons School's Topgun Journal and author of The Pentagon Paradox and The $5 Billion Misunderstanding about the Navy's F-18 and A-12. Winslow Wheeler is the director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. Previously, he worked for four U.S. senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office on national security issues.)