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Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Is the Air Force Spending Itself into Unilateral Disarmament?

About the Author

Colonel Everest E. Riccioni has had an extraordinarily illustrious career. After he began flight training for the United States Army in 1943, he learned to be a test pilot at the knee of Chuck Yeager; was a flight test engineer and experimental test flight pilot instructor in the experimental test pilot school; and taught the most advanced engineering course at the Air Force Academy. He then went on to command both prototype and flight mechanics divisions of the Flight Dynamics Lab at Wright-Patterson and pioneered the first supersonic cruise fighter design conference in history. Riccioni was one of the three legendary "Fighter Mafia" mavericks who forced the Pentagon to produce the F-16 to improve the military's air superiority and completed several stints as a fighter pilot flying 55 different types of military aircraft throughout his career. After retiring from the Air Force in 1976, he worked for Northrop Corporation for 17 years managing aircraft programs, including managing operational studies on the B-2 bomber. Most recently, until his 1997 retirement, Colonel Riccioni consulted with the GAO, the United States Navy, and the Air Force.

Introduction to Unilateral Disarmament

With its ever increasing devotion to complex, high-tech weapons and its willingness to advance the cause of Defense contractors, the Pentagon is embarked upon a policy of unilateral disarmament that threatens the security of the United States.

Shocking as it may seem, the Department of Defense (DOD) is actually degrading America's military capability even as it spends more and the threats we face diminish.

To put the issue in perspective: The Pentagon is spending on the order of $320 billion annually and now accounts for more than 50 percent of the federal discretionary budget. The U.S. military budget is three times greater than the combined military budgets of India, Russia, and China! Yet the result of this enormous expenditure is a severe degradation of the military capability of our nation. The problem here is that the more we spend on new weapons, the fewer we actually acquire. This is not a new phenomenon. While there is little difference in the behavior of the four services, the examples provided are primarily from the service I know best - the United States Air Force (USAF).

As long ago as 1969, in a report to some of the Pentagon's highest military and civilian leaders, Pierre M. Sprey, of the Pentagon's Programs Analysis and Evaluation, concluded that DoD was "opting for unilateral disarmament by purchasing military weapons at unprecedented and prohibitive prices resulting in too few weapons to win our wars." By way of explanation, Sprey suggested that, in seeking to gain a technological edge on our enemies, the Pentagon was committing itself to ever more complex arms whose costs inevitably grew beyond projections, necessitating downward adjustments in the number purchased. Sprey also questioned the edge the new technologies presumably provided, noting that complexity in fact could ensure that high tech weapons would fail to meet their specified battle requirements.

In the same time frame in which Sprey was offering the Pentagon his warnings, Norman Augustine, a DoD official who later became CEO of Lockheed-Martin, plotted the numbers of USAF aircraft purchased as a function of time. Extrapolating the results forward, Augustine predicted that, by 2010, the U.S. Air Force would be able to purchase only one aircraft.

More recently, in a 1975 study, Air Force Col. John R. Boyd showed that the USAF was continually buying new systems that it could not afford, thus creating a constantly increasing bow-wave of future monetary commitments. While the debts incurred caused pain, Congress temporarily alleviated the situation with increased funding. In fact, however, by taking such actions, Congress was simply putting off until tomorrow addressing what is now an enormous financial burden.

Since the early 1980s, Franklin C. Spinney, who worked for Boyd on his landmark 1975 study, has been elaborating on its finding. Spinney, who has appeared on the cover of Time magazine and still works at the Pentagon as a civilian, became something of a bete noire during the Administration of President Reagan by informing Congress that the Pentagon not only could not afford future weapon systems being advocated by then-Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger but also could not afford the military systems for which it already had contracted. In fact, the situation identified by Spinney was largely responsible for the enormous increase in America's national debt during the 1980s.

In the years since, the problems identified by Sprey, Boyd and Spinney have festered and deepened. Despite their warnings, the totally compliant and credulous Congress, urged on by cooperative administrations, managed to provide the Pentagon with virtually all the funding it has sought - even as taxpayers as well as our national security have suffered.

In any discussion of U.S. military spending, it must be noted early and emphatically that, in war, America often has put itself at an advantage by providing its military with a preponderance of numbers; that is to say, overwhelming force. When skillfully applied, such force has a habit of generating victory. Unfortunately, even ironically -- since the end of the Vietnam War - the United States increasingly has been denying itself the advantage of overwhelming force. Today this advantage is being eliminated not for lack of funding, but for lack of insight into the nature of modern war and the failures of our acquisition system.

How has this happened? Largely, perhaps, as an outgrowth of the Cold War and the persistent threat of nuclear annihilation that it has fomented, a system of weapons acquisition has emerged in which the prevailing assumption is that victory in future wars will be obtained by those weapons that are the most technologically complex. The conventional wisdom that "bigger, more expensive fighters are better" is wrong. Forgotten in all this is that fighters aren't to be compared one-to-one, rather, equal-cost fighter fleets should be compared in relative battle effectiveness.

Complexity prolongs the weapons development process, which then encourages military contractors to ingratiate themselves in ever more creative ways with the political system that sustains them economically. The result is as follows: It becomes axiomatic that the time it takes to bring new weapon systems on line as well as their costs always are underestimated in the early going and then grow exponentially thereafter.

At the same time, once the Pentagon bureaucracy is hooked on the overstated potential of a new weapons system, it becomes almost impossible to withdraw from the commitments made to such a system. Why? Because the process quickly invests such a wide array of interests in its success that rising costs are viewed institutionally as inevitable and largely irrelevant.

To date, as the costs of new weapon systems have begun to climb, Congress has approved requests for supplemental funding as if it would be unpatriotic not to do so. Thereafter, as cost increase curves have steepened, the inevitable has also occurred: the number of units to be purchased has been reduced.

Ironically, the time it takes to develop these complex new weapon systems often has been so prolonged that, before these weapons actually enter into production, the threats they are designed to thwart, we discover, have disappeared. More than occasionally, too, we find that the technologies these weapons were intended to exploit cannot be proven.

In addition, in many cases, we learn that, by the time the new weapons in which we have invested either don't work as intended or don't address the real threats we face, we also discover that the weapons these new systems were intended to supplant have worn out.

Finally, when the utility of our latest high tech weaponry is in complete question, the ultimate solution - turning off the faucet that pours good money after bad - rarely is undertaken.

Thus it is that the United States has begun its own unilateral disarmament, eliminating the advantage a preponderance of numbers has always provided us.

In effect, our unilateral disarmament is a self-inflicted wound; one that we cannot afford to keep committing upon ourselves if we want to remain economically robust and thus be able to ensure our security as a nation.

As long as we keep investing in weapon systems that are highly complex and rely on technologies that are not fully proven, we will find ourselves spending more and more on fewer and fewer weapons that are of questionable relevance to the threats we face.

Reversing this trend is essential, but perhaps not as simple as we would wish. A more detailed look at the experience of the Air Force in developing both new aircraft and missiles will best illuminate the ways in which America is, to its own detriment, unilaterally disarming itself.

As a former Air Force Colonel who has been involved in the engineering of a number of aircraft both within the Air Force and the private sector, I am at once confident and unhappy with the conclusions I have been obliged to draw.

Let us look first at the evolution of America's long-range bomber fleet, and its cost enforced degradation.


At the start of the cold war, America's Strategic Air Command, which was led by General Curtis LeMay, consisted of 1,380 long-range B-47 jet bombers. They were replaced by some 680 B-52s which carried many more bombs over a longer distance. The B-52 strato-bomber was a magnificent weapon and deterrent during the Cold War. The bomber meant to replace the aging B–52 fleet was the B-1. An initial plan -- to purchase 250 of the bombers -- foundered as the number and size of the aircraft's cost overruns grew. Finally, only 100 of the B-1 were produced. Making matters worse, B-1 was the worst designed bomber in U.S. history. It was known to be falsely and inadequately flight-tested yet still was declared "available" for three campaigns. Finally, however, the aircraft flew fewer than 20 combat sorties, accomplishing essentially nothing of military significance. In effect, the B-1 represents a zero return on a large investment and still consumes a $1 billion a year for maintenance.

Following on the B-1, the B-2 stealth bomber overran its cost so badly that a mere 20 aircraft finally were built out of a $40 billion program aimed at the purchase of 135 to 150 aircraft. In fact, the calculable cost of the B-2 -- $2 billion per aircraft -- is understood by Pentagon "Insiders" to be an understatement because the aircraft was the beneficiary of "Black Program" funding, which is hidden from the view of the public. It also is known that much more will need to be spent on the B-2 to resolve a host of problems the aircraft is still experiencing; most notably, with maintaining its stealth and resolving its battle system difficulties.

As has been shown, the number of U.S. bombers acquisitions has fallen precipitously -- from 1380 B-47s in 1950 to only 20 B-2s in 1995 - and provides a clear picture of unilateral disarmament - [Figure 1]. The declining numbers of bombers purchased by the United States is a sad testimonial to the Pentagon acquisition system, which is fraught with over-optimism, misinformation, and misguided efforts.

At best our bomber fleet is a motley affair. The B-1 is so dysfunctional that 56 old B–52s have been retained to shore it up. The B-2 fleet is so tiny that the dysfunctional B-1 had to be retained -- though it also must be noted that DoD actually considered retiring the entire fleet of B-1 in 1995 before it became fully operational.

Fighter Air-to-Air Missiles

The development of Fighter air-to-air missiles has followed a similar path to that of America's bombers. Dramatically increasing costs have spurred dramatic decreases in the number of missiles.

As ambitions for air-to-air missiles have grown so too has their complexity and costs. Unfortunately, the greater these missiles alleged domain of relevance, the less effective they seem to become in combat.

In Figure 2, the unit cost of various means for "killing" an enemy is portrayed together with their relative effectiveness in combat. The cost of these so-called expendables is a weak parameter since the system support costs to destroy aircraft with missiles is enormous and ever increasing with missile complexity.

Now, examine Figure 2 closely. The cost of killing an enemy aircraft has gone from hundreds of dollars (when only guns were involved) to $15,000 for an AIM-9B/D to $90,000 for the AIM-4 to $190,000 for an AIM-7D to a precipitous ten-fold increase to $1.9 million for the Phoenix. Clearly, now we cannot even afford an air war or even one kill with the Phoenix.

In effect, the greater the sophistication, the greater the claims, the greater the expense, the less effective the military result! 1 At these prices the constant complaint of theater commanders is that we lack sufficient missiles for a war - small wonder. One example is the cruise missile. Almost the entire NATO/US inventory of cruise missiles was expended in the Kosovo engagement, with questionable political/military results.

Figure 2 reveals the story of U.S. air-to-air missile over a time span of four decades. Even though the AIM-7 Sparrow missile, in its fifth stage of development, has finally become reasonably effective, the most useful air-to-air missile remains the simplest - the short ranged AIM-9. Even it has been made increasingly complex over the years and does little to refute what is becoming obvious: That firing air-to-air missiles has become so expensive that it's as if we are firing unmanned fighter aircraft at manned fighter aircraft.

Fighter Aircraft

Like our bombers and missiles, our fighter aircraft are exploding in cost and imploding in sheer numbers.

Look at the case of the F-16 Fighter. It costs about half as much as the F-15 Fighter and outnumbers the latter by about 3 to 1. Similarly, the F-18 costs much less than the F-14 while also outnumbering them by about 5 to 1.

At the same time, both the F16 and the F18 have now been in production for about 25 years and, from all appearances, these fighters, or variants of them, will need to remain mainstays of our Defense for another 10 to 20 years. This is a record.

Behind the experience of the current fleet of U.S. jet fighters, one finds a similar story. Where once DoD purchased F-86, and F-84 fighters in the thousands, the fleet buys of the Century Series fighters - F-100, F-101, F-102, F-104, F-4, F-105, and F-106 - were more restricted. At the same time, the F–14 with its vaunted beyond-visual-range, multi-mode Phoenix missile has remained largely unused. Why? In part, because the F-14 is committed to defense of the carriers, and because the US Navy's excellent fighter pilots have seldom been committed to significant air battles.2

In 1970, an Air Force "Force Structure Group" concluded that the purchase of the F-15A Fighters would require a reduction in the size of the Air Force's Tactical Air command from 19.5 to 18 fighter wings. It also concluded that if the cost of the F-15 increased much more, the Force would need to be reduced to 15 wings.

These revelations spurred me to conceive and advocate a novel, lightweight, low-cost fighter that could increase the size of our air superiority fleet. The result of the effort was the F-16 program of the Air force and the F-18 program of the Navy.

The F-16 was created outside the normal acquisition system and thus does not offer the classic example of unilateral disarmament that the F-22 procurement program does.

With the F-22, all the ingredients for unilateral disarmament appear to have come into play - the early overstatement of capabilities, the early understatement of costs, and an overall failure to adequately explain what the aircraft would be able to do.

The F-22 was conceived on my watch at the Flight Dynamics Laboratory. It was intended to be able to fly deep into the heart of the former Soviet Union at supersonic speeds and without being detected so as to intercept and destroy Russian bomber well before they could carry and drop nuclear bombs on the United States or our allies. The success of the F-22 was to be guaranteed by 70,000 lbs of thrust driving a 50,000 lb aircraft. It was to have "magical" avionics, providing its pilot great battle awareness. And it was projected to fulfill its mission at a bargain basement cost per unit of about $50 million or about the same price as the F-15C, the aircraft it was meant to replace.

The F-22 fleet initially was projected at 800 aircraft and a total cost of $40 billion. The idea of this fleet was that it would provide the air superiority previously guaranteed by 1600 fighters - 400 F-15s and 1200 F-16s, all of which were acknowledged to be wearing out.

The backdrop to the development of the F-22 among fighters is much the same as the Cold War history of America's bomber aircraft. In the decade following World War II, the United States was able to purchase some 17,000 fighters, 6,000 of which were F-86s purchased to fight the Korean War.

The cost of the Century series fleet started to draw down the number of fighters that could be bought. The F-111 was typical. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara initially planned to buy 1,500 of the aircraft for both the Air force and the Navy. Ultimately, only 560 of the aircraft were purchased since they proved far more costly and less effective than original projections.

But it is the F-22 procurement that provides a classic example of unilateral disarmament. Over the two decades in which it has been under development, it has never been fully tested nor has it ever been frankly represented to either the American people or their Congress.

What is now indisputable about the aircraft is the fact that its initial mission has largely evaporated and its capabilities have been downgraded. Its problems include the failure to even define effective supersonic cruise correctly 3 and a misunderstanding of the features of stealth technology. At the same time, its projected cost has skyrocketed.

When the aircraft was first conceived, its cost was projected at $40 billion for the 800 aircraft to be purchased. By the time the first prototype was flown, the projected cost had swelled to $70 billion. Since then, the U.S. Air Force has adjusted the program several times - first to a $64.2 billion program for 680 aircraft and then to a $64.2 billion program for 480 aircraft. Now, the F-22 program is advertised as a $64.2 billion dollar program for 333 aircraft. That translates to $192 million per fighter, almost four times the original estimate, yet no element of the government or the acquisition system objected to the distortion.

[See Figure 4]

While the Air Force has managed to keep the F-22 program moving ahead -- even as it cost projections have quadrupled, the Congressional Budget Office has informed me that the Air Force probably will only be able to afford 100 to 175 F-22s. This means the cost of the F-22 could escalate to insane levels -- beyond $350 million per aircraft. Meanwhile, the size of our Air Force's fleet of fighters would be reduced to such a small number that we would, in effect, be rendering it impotent. The idea of replacing the current air superiority potential of 1600 F-15s and F-16s which are admittedly wearing out, with that of 175 F-22s, is manifestly absurd.

See Figure 5 and Figure 6 portray the cost of the F–22 as a function of its acquisition milestones and the number that can reportedly be purchased. When the true cost finally does emerge, the F-22 point will solidly prove that since the richest country in the world cannot afford the aircraft in meaningful numbers, the F-22, like the B-2, will most likely be the last fighter purchased by this acquisition system.

However, for more than a generation now, no country has had a fleet of aircraft with which they could put our ground or air forces in jeopardy. Indeed, Russia's aeronautical industry has essentially disappeared and, with hostile powers largely obliged to protect their ground forces with surface-to air-missiles that are less costly than fighter planes, the obscenely expensive F-22 really no longer has a reason for being.

If anything, the F-22 was an aircraft of great promise. Unfortunately, most of its promise has evaporated. The dream of the F-22 being capable of cruising at supersonic speeds was lost because its weight swelled by 30 percent without a concomitant increase in fuel. The weight increase has made its performance commonplace -- about that of the Air Force's 20-year-old F-15C, the F-16D, and the obsolescing Russian Mig-29.

Furthermore, the promise of the F-22's "magical" avionic system has now become another cause for concern. A complete overhaul of the system may be in order because the computer chips in the aircraft are not compatible with the state of the art companion technology that is now available.

At the same time, the dream that the F-22 would be capable of positively identifying enemy aircraft and shooting them down beyond visual range remains unfulfilled -- and now it is highly unlikely, for a good long time, that there will be any enemy aircraft out there to shoot down.

Finally, the F-22's promise of being a stealth aircraft has been widely misrepresented. In fact, there are five signatures to an aircraft-visual, radar, electromagnetic emissions, infrared, and sound - and the F-22 is designed to excel in cloaking with stealth, only one: Radar stealth, and from limited directions. The other four signatures are very large on the F-22 and the aircraft therefore will not be able to hide from the enemy.

Ultimately, it is the lack of adequate numbers that defines the F-22 as the quintessential case of unilateral disarmament. A fleet of 100 to 300 F-22s will not be able to do what the Air Force currently can do with the 1,600 fighters in its possession, which swells to 2,400 when reserve forces are counted.

Unfortunately, the current force of F-15s and F-16s is wearing out. Thankfully, they can be replaced - if need be -- in large numbers for less than one fifth the cost of the F-22 fleet.

The F-15 and F-16 both have acceptable air-to-surface capabilities, a capability the F-22 can never possess while also remaining stealthy.

What the F-22 should teach us is that spending large sums of money to disarm goes against all reason. It is irrational - indeed, insane - and runs totally counter to the reason for our military. It must be strong -- not weak -- and it must be relevant to future threats to our country.

The military threats we likely will face in the future -- rogue national leaders who may generate weapons of mass destruction and use them irrationally; terrorists, insurgents, guerilla fighters, and drug dealers - certainly are not threats the F-22 is particularly suited to addressing.

Sadly, apologists for the F-22 seem to be left arguing for its advancement by suggesting that, since we have sold high performance F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s to friendly countries, we have created potential threats that must be offset by a new aircraft. Even our benevolent northern neighbor, Canada, has been mentioned as a possible threat.

If we erred with such sales, clearly those who made the decisions should be tried for possible subversive behavior.

Worse yet, however, is the fact that Lockheed Martin, one of the makers of the F-22, has already sought licensing to sell the aircraft overseas. Under the guise of reducing aircraft costs, Boeing also has sought a license to sell a better, more modern version of the F-18E to foreign countries than it currently is providing the U.S. Navy.

These are totally reprehensible actions, and, if they are approved, will place the United States in a perpetual arms race with itself -- at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer.

At present, the major tragedy of the F-22 program is the loss of the $70 billion to the American people. Another tragedy is that the waste on the F-22 program could have been devoted to funding aircraft the U.S. armed forces really do need.

Today, apart from the F-22, there is only the very tenuous, ill conceived, four-service, multi-configuration Joint Strike Fighter under consideration as a next generation aircraft. Again, the cost projections are now such that one can very legitimately wonder why the procedures by which America purchases weapon systems are not completely overhauled before any new developments are undertaken.

Root Causes of Unilateral Disarmament

Now that the problems are visible it is possible and necessary to summarize some major causes of Self-Imposed Unilateral Disarmament. The problems have been fed by -

  1. Misrepresentation of the facts by the USAF to the DoD and to a credulous Congress.
  2. A collapse of integrity in the acquisition system, nullifying its checks and balances.
  3. A system that gives contractual awards to those that excel at misrepresenting the facts.
  4. Black programs that bypass the checks and balances and hide the total program costs.
  5. Planned erosion of the power of the Government Accounting Office and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Effective, patriotic investigators are reassigned to obscure, irrelevant posts.
  6. The power of the "Iron Triangle" composed of the Military, the Congressional Armed Service Committees and the Congress, and the Contractors. They serve themselves rather than the country. They were meant to be checks and balances on each other, but instead cooperate (for different reasons) to create the disaster.
  7. The willing claques and sycophants among the alleged pundits and the media that support deficient programs and pander to the elements of the "Iron Triangle."
  8. The universal and fundamental motivation - Greed.

Resolutions to the Problems

Knowing the problems and their causes makes it easy to find resolutions.

  1. First and foremost - the Department of Defense must generate a new culture that allows and accepts only The Truth in the Acquisition system. The penalty for misrepresentation must be made high. In competitions, contractors are inevitably tempted to misrepresent. Government personnel must have the knowledge to detect the distortions, and the power to penalize the offending parties. It is the general failure to act on the part of the government and the DoD, that fosters the tendency to misrepresent. Contracts must be written to insure that misrepresentation and over-optimism are expensive, punishing, and counterproductive to the offender. Mistakes can and must be tolerated, but misrepresentation - never.
  2. But if misrepresentation by contractors is bad, misrepresentation by the military to anybody and especially to the Congress should be anathema. Yet it happens very frequently. Something has happened to the honor code adhered to by the many fine officers I served with and that inspired me for thirty years. The military must once again embrace the Honor Code.
  3. The Congress must lose its tendency to credulity. Yes, specious programs create jobs, but good programs can be even more effective, e.g. the F-16. The Congress must re-inject power into its watchdogs—the GAO and CBO. This is done by supporting rather than slashing funding for these services, assigning tough, knowledgeable people into the watchdog organizations and rewarding them for uncovering and realistically facing difficulties.
  4. The only way to counter distortions by panderers, sycophants, and the alleged pundits, is to expose them, their associations, and their agendas.
  5. It took only four years to go from a gleam in the eye to a production F-16 program, so a true air superiority force capable of ultra-high performance, real supersonic cruise capability, together with pragmatic stealth can be generated in time.

The current tendency of the Military Services, the Department of Defense and the Acquisition System to Disarm Unilaterally is a removable, self-inflicted wound.

The current Weapons acquisition system must be extensively modified and corrected.


1. The more sophisticated missiles all depended on being able to fire at the enemy without making visual identification. This remains a continual dream (and claim).

2. The long range U.S. Navy Phoenix missile was fired twice in combat in 30 years and missed both times - a zero return on a large investment. The same was true of the Talos, a USN ship-to-air missile rendered essentially useless for lack of an identification system. Zero returns are to be avoided.

3. POGO Report, The F-22 Program: Fact Versus Fiction, by E.E. Riccioni, revised August 10, 2000, properly describes supercruise.