Studies by independent researchers estimate that the defense budget is over-programmed by $50 billion to $100 billion per year. To overcome the disparity between programs on the books and likely budgets will require hard decisions about which weapons to curtail. Many unneeded or Cold War-era weapons should end up on President Bush’s chopping block.
The President’s own advisers have complained that the excess of tactical fighter aircraft programs must be reassessed. According to the National Defense University, the consensus view among U.S. government and private threat assessments is that U.S. aircraft will face no substantial threat from enemy aircraft from now until 2025. Yet the U.S. military is developing or beginning to build three new tactical fighters — the Air Force’s F-22, the Navy’s F-18E/F, and the Joint Strike Fighter (a collaborative effort by the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps)—at a cost of $360 billion.
Two of those three aircraft could be cancelled. The troubled and expensive F-22 ($180 million per copy), designed mainly to battle advanced Soviet aircraft that were never built, is a prime candidate for cancellation before it goes into limited production. Also, the production of the costly F-18E/F, at best a marginal improvement over the F-18C/D, could be ended.
The tactical air forces will eventually need a new aircraft, but one that is optimized for attacking targets on the ground rather than other aircraft. Thus, the less expensive Joint Strike Fighter should be produced.
The new administration should also consider canceling the expensive V-22 tilt rotor aircraft — a plane that takes off like a helicopter, shifts its propellers, and flies like a plane — that was designed to transport Marines and their light equipment to the beach. The aircraft ($80 million each) has a mission that Blackhawk or CH-53 helicopters could perform adequately, and at a lower cost.
In addition, the Navy’s Virginia-class attack submarine is a good candidate for the scrap heap. According to the National Defense University’s consensus threat assessment, between 2001 and 2015, war in the open ocean is unlikely. With the demise of the Soviet navy — the only threat to the world’s oceans — the U.S. Navy is justifying more submarines on their ability to collect intelligence. But at about $2 billion each, the submarine is an expensive way to carry out that mission. It’s also limited to collection in coastal regions. The money saved by truncating production of the Virginia-class would buy many intelligence satellites and manned and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, which do not face the limitations of the submarine. With a negligible open ocean threat, no replacement for the Virginia-class is needed now, and the submarine fleet can be reduced in size.
The DD-21 destroyer also should be scrapped. Each one costs about $750 million and it is being developed primarily for land-attack missions. The destroyer will feature two guns and 120 to 250 vertical launch system (VLS) tubes to fire missiles. Marines suffer from insufficient fire-support from the sea. But they need high volume, suppressive gunfire to keep the enemy forces in their foxholes. Instead, the DD-21 — reflecting the Navy’s priority of deep strike — is a missile ship with a couple of ancillary guns. Also, in a time of uncertain threats and constrained resources for defense, the Navy already has thousands of VLS tubes and should buy only versatile multi-mission ships rather than ships optimized for a narrowly focused mission.
The Army’s costly Comanche light scout and attack helicopter ($30 million apiece), built to fight Soviet tanks in Europe, is no longer needed. In the Gulf War, no scout helicopters were used with Apache heavy attack helicopters. If a scout aircraft is needed in the future, unmanned aerial vehicles might be more effective and would not put pilots’ lives at risk. Although the Army is trying to put the heavy Crusader mobile artillery piece on a diet, the gun system does not mesh well with the goal of making the Army lighter.
If President Bush intends to keep his campaign pledge to skip a generation of weapons, he has a rich menu of unneeded programs from which to cut.