The House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly to put an indefinite hold on the Pentagon's proposal to begin spending $40 billion to buy 339 new F-22 fighters.
The F-22 fighter will be a magnificent airplane if the manufacturer can deliver it as promised. No one disputes that. If this plane's expected performance were all we had to worry about, we would build this plane. But budgetary concerns make it a questionable investment at this time.
The F-22 is the most expensive fighter plane ever to be built, by a factor of three or four. Not only does the Pentagon propose to buy this plane -- which would cost $65 billion when development costs are included -- it also has initiated a $47 billion program to buy 548 F/A-18E and F-fighter aircraft for the Navy and has begun a third, $223 billion program to buy 2,850 "Joint Strike Fighters." All told the Pentagon is proposing to spend more than $340 billion for tactical aircraft over the next several decades. There are serious and unanswered questions as to whether this level of tactical aircraft investment would crowd out other critical defense systems, and whether it is warranted given the threats we expect to face.
It's been said that the House decision on the F-22 is ironic coming on the heels of our overwhelming air victory in Yugoslavia. This was indeed an impressive showing of our air power, but many lessons can be drawn from this war. Above all, it showed once again that well-trained and well-motivated military personnel make the difference, be they pilots, maintenance crews, planners or logisticians. Our first budget priority must continue to be "people" -- money for training, for facilities to provide a decent quality of life for military families and for decent pay and retirement benefits.
But what was sometimes lost in the press attention on the stealthy aircraft and the smart munitions was just how important the array of supporting equipment was to the Kosovo mission. The success of the air war depended on refueling tankers, electronic jamming aircraft, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms of all sorts, bombers, naval vessels, rescue helicopters and transport aircraft.
The Kosovo campaign showed that some critical elements of this capability are stretched thin -- to the point of becoming brittle. Overall, our Air Force committed more than 40 percent of its assets to Kosovo, a higher percentage than was committed during Desert Storm. We committed nearly 100 percent of operational intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, such as U-2s and AWACS, and committed so many of our electronic jamming aircraft that Korea was left uncovered. Senior Pentagon officials told us that we were "flying the wings off" our tanker force.
Spare parts shortages for the B-1B aircraft became so severe that the cannibalization rate (the percentage of aircraft that are repaired with parts taken from another aircraft) grew to 99 percent. One of the five B-1Bs forward-deployed to Operation Allied Force was deployed only as a source of spare parts for other aircraft. The Air Force's personnel shortages became so critical during this operation that it was forced to initiate an unusual "stop-loss" order preventing key active-duty and reserve personnel from leaving the service before the end of the conflict.
We are troubled that there is no budgetary plan to rectify the problems laid bare by Kosovo. We question the wisdom of the Pentagon's plan to spend $333 billion for tactical aircraft while neglecting these other areas. The plan to modernize bombers is inadequate. We are told that instead the Air Force plans to operate B-52 aircraft until they are 80 years old. No plan exists to upgrade or replace the electronic jammer aircraft that must accompany even B-2 bombers on their missions. No plan exists to buy the required number of JSTARS surveillance planes. Funding is inadequate to modernize aging AWACS aircraft. The budget has little money to modernize aging U-2 cockpits or install F-15 upgrades that will increase the survivability and lethality of these planes now. These are the kinds of capabilities we are forsaking to find the extra $40 billion needed to buy 339 F-22 fighters.
The Pentagon's tactical aircraft plan to meet the future threat to U.S. air superiority is also somewhat mystifying. On the one hand, the Air Force warns that future threats from new hyper-expensive Russian SAM missile systems and futuristic Russian fighter aircraft will be so overwhelming in seven to 10 years that only a $187 million F-22 fighter can defeat them. On the other hand, we hear from the Navy that its new nonstealthy $85 million fighter, with nowhere near the capability of the F-22, is superior to these same threats.
It also has not been demonstrated that rogue nations can or would pay the multibillions of dollars required to deploy such systems in the quantities needed, especially given other cheaper, quicker and potentially more deadly ways to confront us. Nor has it been demonstrated that Russia will have the industrial base to produce this sophisticated and expensive weaponry, given its severe economic woes. It has not been demonstrated why we should put such emphasis on three new tactical aircraft while shortchanging other basic readiness and equipment needs. It has not been demonstrated that this threat has been properly weighed against needs in other vital areas such as chemical-biological defense, information warfare and ship self-defense.
For all of these reasons, we are not convinced that it is the time to make a $40 billion commitment to the F-22 fighter program.
Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) is chairman and Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.) the ranking member of the House defense appropriations subcommittee.