Policy Analysis No. 334

Hard Choices: Fighter Procurement in the Next Century

By Williamson Murray
February 26, 1999

Executive Summary

The Pentagon is proposing three fighter programs over the next three decades. The cost of those programs will exceed $300 billion. Yet serious doubts exist about whether the proposed purchases will address the strategic challenges that the United States will face in the next century. Given a constrained defense budget, the lack of a peer competitor, and the return of American forces to North America, the United States confronts a strategic framework substantially different from that of the Cold War.

Moreover, it is unlikely that any enemies that U.S. forces might confront will challenge the United States directly for control of the air. The F/A-18E/F—with its lack of range and its high cost—is not what the U.S. Navy needs. It is doubtful that the Air Force needs the expensive F-22 when it is unlikely that any potential opponent could counter the Air Force’s existing F-15s. The Joint Strike Fighter should be purchased, but its purchase delayed. And it is unclear whether the JSF can fulfill the Air Force’s need to replace the F-16, the Navy’s need for a stealth aircraft, and the Marines’ desire for an aircraft with short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities. Considering the Department of Defense’s other procurement requirements over the coming three decades, it is unreasonable for the Pentagon to procure expensive high-tech fighters in the proposed numbers and at a cost that will severely limit its other weapons purchases. Thus, two of the three fighter programs—the F-18E/F and the F-22—should be canceled and efforts concentrated on the more futuristic JSF.

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Williamson Murray, Harold K. Johnson Professor of Military History at the Army War College, is the author of numerous books and articles on military history and national defense.