Many military experts fear that the United States is "still fighting the last war," but Secretary of Defense Robert Gates thinks the country is too preoccupied with fighting the next. In Gates's view, defense appropriators are giving too much thought to the future, and it's taking a toll in the present.
"I have noticed too much of a tendency towards what might be called 'next-war-itis,' the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict," Gates remarked at a recent event in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Gates acknowledges that the U.S. would have a hard time launching a major ground operation outside of Iraq and Afghanistan right now, but says it has enough air and naval power to "defeat any — repeat any — adversary who committed an act of aggression — whether in the Persian Gulf, on the Korean Peninsula, or in the Straits of Taiwan."
So we already have the capabilities we need should hostilities arise in any of those places, and yet we persist in building weapons with no applications, present or future. The Taliban and al Qaeda have no air forces to speak of, but that hasn't stopped the U.S. Air Force from pushing the F-22 Raptor. Designed in the 1980s to fight the Soviets, the F-22 has always been an aircraft in search of a mission. But the Air Force says it needs more F-22s to maintain U.S. air supremacy.
Survivability in air combat will be essential for the Air Force as a small number of F-22s replace highly capable but aging F-15s, but sooner or later, one has to consider the costs. When the F-22 program began, Air Force officials hoped to acquire 750 aircraft, but current plans call for just 183 F-22s to be built. When you factor in the $65.3 billion spent over the life of the program, the average cost of the plane comes to more than $356 million per unit.
At every stage in its development, the actual costs of the F-22 have exceeded projections. Government largesse insulates the military-industrial complex from market forces, and the Pentagon often purchases weapons on the basis of political considerations. The F-22 is no exception: the program involves as many as 1,000 subcontractors in 44 states.
The F-22's supporters have launched a Save the Raptor campaign, urging Congress to purchase at least 20 additional planes. Lockheed workers in Marietta, Ga., where the F-22 is assembled, have the most to gain from a decision to extend production. If the company doesn't receive a new contract by November, the production line might be closed down.
Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), who represents the district where the F-22 is assembled, has warned that Marietta and Cobb counties could become "a ghost town" if the money stops flowing.
Across the aisle, Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), whose district includes hundreds of aerospace workers in the Fort Worth area, once described the end of the F-22 program as a "train wreck" that would have a "major impact" on the economy. But Edwards's constituents also include thousands of Army personnel at Fort Hood.
Edwards and other members of Congress, therefore, are confronted with a dilemma. The F-22 is an exceptional aircraft, but it faces only a hypothetical enemy in a future war that may never occur. The Air Force hasn't even deployed F-22s to Iraq or Afghanistan, since they're not well suited to the battles being fought there. The F-22's armor is too light even for small-arms fire, which forces it to drop its ordnance from high altitude. That increases the likelihood of civilian casualties, which make it harder, not easier, to win the support of Iraqis who remain deeply skeptical of American intentions.
Even Gates has questioned the utility of the F-22, noting in congressional testimony in February that the plane "is principally for use against a near-peer in a conflict."
The American people should welcome a real debate on defense spending. This discussion should focus on ensuring that our troops are provided the equipment they need. We shouldn't fritter away precious defense dollars on extraordinarily costly platforms like the F-22, simply to protect the jobs of defense workers when our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are being attacked on the ground every day.
If we allow political considerations, rather than strategic necessity, to dictate what weapon systems are built, taxpayers might well be on the hook for more F-22s. And these planes, the most expensive fighters in history, may spend their entire lives preparing for a war that never comes, and sitting out the ones that do.