Which Weapons Should President Bush Skip?


In a September 1999 speech at the Citadel military academy, then-candidateGeorge W. Bush pledged to skip a generation of weapons. In January 2000 athis confirmation hearing, Secretary of Defense-designate Donald Rumsfeldrepeated the possible need to "leap frog" some weapon systems. They're ontarget.

Studies by independent researchers estimate that the defense budget isover-programmed by $50 billion to $100 billion per year. To overcome thedisparity between programs on the books and likely budgets will require harddecisions about which weapons to curtail. Many unneeded or Cold War-eraweapons should end up on President Bush's chopping block.

The President's own advisers have complained that the excess of tacticalfighter aircraft programs must be reassessed. According to the NationalDefense University, the consensus view among U.S. government and privatethreat assessments is that U.S. aircraft will face no substantial threatfrom enemy aircraft from now until 2025. Yet the U.S. military isdeveloping or beginning to build three new tactical fighters -- the Air Force'sF-22, the Navy's F-18E/F, and the Joint Strike Fighter (a collaborativeeffort 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 expensiveF-22 ($180 million per copy), designed mainly to battle advanced Sovietaircraft that were never built, is a prime candidate for cancellation beforeit goes into limited production. Also, the production of the costlyF-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 isoptimized 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-22tilt rotor aircraft -- a plane that takes off like a helicopter, shifts itspropellers, and flies like a plane -- that was designed to transport Marinesand their light equipment to the beach. The aircraft ($80 million each) hasa mission that Blackhawk or CH-53 helicopters could perform adequately, andat a lower cost.

In addition, the Navy's Virginia-class attack submarine is a good candidatefor the scrap heap. According to the National Defense University'sconsensus threat assessment, between 2001 and 2015, war in the open ocean isunlikely. With the demise of the Soviet navy -- the only threat to the world'soceans -- the U.S. Navy is justifying more submarines on their ability tocollect intelligence. But at about $2 billion each, the submarine is anexpensive way to carry out that mission. It's also limited to collection incoastal regions. The money saved by truncating production of theVirginia-class would buy many intelligence satellites and manned andunmanned reconnaissance aircraft, which do not face the limitations of thesubmarine. With a negligible open ocean threat, no replacement for theVirginia-class is needed now, and the submarine fleet can be reduced insize.

The DD-21 destroyer also should be scrapped. Each one costs about $750million and it is being developed primarily for land-attack missions. Thedestroyer will feature two guns and 120 to 250 vertical launch system (VLS)tubes to fire missiles. Marines suffer from insufficient fire-support fromthe sea. But they need high volume, suppressive gunfire to keep the enemyforces in their foxholes. Instead, the DD-21 -- reflecting the Navy's priorityof deep strike -- is a missile ship with a couple of ancillary guns. Also, ina time of uncertain threats and constrained resources for defense, the Navyalready has thousands of VLS tubes and should buy only versatilemulti-mission ships rather than ships optimized for a narrowly focusedmission.

The Army's costly Comanche light scout and attack helicopter ($30 millionapiece), built to fight Soviet tanks in Europe, is no longer needed. In theGulf War, no scout helicopters were used with Apache heavy attackhelicopters. If a scout aircraft is needed in the future, unmanned aerialvehicles might be more effective and would not put pilots' lives at risk.Although the Army is trying to put the heavy Crusader mobile artillery pieceon a diet, the gun system does not mesh well with the goal of making theArmy lighter.

If President Bush intends to keep his campaign pledge to skip a generationof weapons, he has a rich menu of unneeded programs from which to cut.