It's time for Congress to rein in the U.S. Air Force.
Last December, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decided to stop production of the Air Force's beloved stealth fighter plane, the F-22 Raptor, at the end of fiscal year 2008. This would leave the program at 187 planes costing a total of $65 billion.
On Feb. 13, according to today's issue of Aerospace Daily & Defense Report, Gen. Bruce Carlson, chief of the Air Force's materiel command, told a group of reporters, "We think that [187 planes] is the wrong number" and that the Air Force would find some way to build 380 before the program's done. He joked that 380 is a "compromise," since the original plan calls for 381.
Gen. Carlson's rationale for this expansion: "Most people say in the future there will be a China element to whatever we do." In plainer words: He says we need more than twice as many F-22s than the secretary of defense says we need because of the future military threat from China.
Two things should be noted about this claim. First, by the Pentagon's own measure, the Chinese military has a long way to go before it constitutes a threat to U.S. forces. Second, even if it does become a threat, it's not at all clear that the F-22 would be the best weapon to deal with it.
The F-22 is a product of the Cold War. It began development in the early 1980s as the advanced tactical fighter—a short-range fighter plane that would incorporate the "stealth" technology that was going into the B-2 bomber and F-117 attack plane, which were entering production around then.
After the Cold War ended, and with it the imminent prospect of air-to-air dogfights, the F-22 was redesigned so that each could carry two JDAM "smart bombs" to attack targets on the ground (as well as eight air-to-air missles to shoot down other airplanes in the sky)—not a lot of firepower for a plane that wound up costing $345 million apiece.
Gates was not the first to push for cutting back. This tussle between the Air Force and the civilian leadership has been going on since 2001, when the Pentagon's Defense Acquisition Board, noting horrendous cost overruns, reduced the program from 331 planes—the number the Air Force wanted to buy back then—to 295.
In September 2002, the board commissioned a study concluding that only 180 F-22s were necessary. The Air Force responded by raising the ante and saying it needed 381. In December 2004, as one of his final acts as defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld backed the board, trimming the program to 180 planes, which would finish production in 2008.
Subsequently, Robert Gates went along with a slight increase—to 187 planes—in order to keep the production line open in case the F-22's successor, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, experienced difficulties. But that would be it.
Gen. Carlson's upfront challenge is based on the ancient adage that secretaries come and go, but the services stay forever. Still, even stodgy bureaucrat-generals need a rationale to keep their favorite programs afloat. The F-22 is the centerpiece of Air Force procurement at the moment. It has nearly no role in the sorts of wars that the United States has been fighting in the last 20 years—or has much prospect of fighting in the next 20.
And so, the China threat is dragged out of the cellar once again, as it has been to justify troubled weapons systems for 40 years now. (For an example from, yes, as far back as the mid-1960s, click
Is this threat real, though? In each of the last five years, Congress has required the Defense Department to issue a report titled "Military Power of the People's Republic of China." The latest edition, released last spring—like the one released in the spring of 2006—provides little basis for losing sleep (or building more F-22s).
China's military is actively building up its strength. In March 2007, it announced a 17.8 percent increase in its military budget—larger than the increase of the country's gross domestic product. The Pentagon report notes that China is "pursuing long-term comprehensive transformation of its military forces to improve its capabilities for power projection." It's learning lessons about information warfare from our battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's building more short-range ballistic missiles across from the Taiwan Strait. And its leaders are expressing interest in building an aircraft carrier.
This last point tells the tale, though: they're expressing interest in building an aircraft carrier—they're not building one. China did buy two used aircraft carriers from Russia, the Minsk in 1998 and the Kiev in 2000. But, in the words of the Pentagon report, "Neither carrier was made operational; instead, they were used as floating military theme parks."
The report also quotes Lt. Gen. Wang Zhiyuan, vice chairman of the science and technology commission of the Chinese army's general armament department. "The Chinese army will study how to manufacture aircraft carriers so that we can develop our own," Wang wrote, adding that "aircraft carriers are indispensable if we want to protect our interests in oceans."
They're "indispensable" to "protect" China's maritime interests, much less to project China's power outside its peripheries. Yet China has no aircraft carriers. Wang is quoted as saying it can't build any "within three or five years." The Pentagon report notes that some U.S. intelligence analysts think China might have an aircraft carrier by 2011-15, while others don't think that day will come until "2020 or later."
As for China's attempts to modernize its military, the Pentagon report notes that it is "untested in modern warfare" and that its senior officers "lack direct military experience" while also facing "deficiencies in inter-service cooperation and actual experience in joint operations." The U.S. intelligence community "estimates that China will take until the end of this decade or later to produce a modern force capable of defeating a moderate-sized adversary." (Italics added.)
The report states many times that China's main priority, for the next several years, is to deter an attack on the Taiwan Strait, not to project power throughout Asia. However, even on this limited level, the report notes, "China does not yet possess the military capability to accomplish with confidence its political objectives on the island [of Taiwan], particularly when confronted with the prospect of U.S. intervention."
Finally, it quotes a Beijing report titled "China's National Defense in 2006" as stating that China "pursues a three-step development strategy in modernizing its national defense." The first step: "[L]ay a solid foundation by 2010." Second: Achieve "major progress by 2020." Third: Be "capable of winning [information-technology] wars by mid 21st century." (Italics added.)
In other words, it's worth keeping an eye on China. But it's probably not worth spending tens or hundreds of billions of dollars now for a program like the F-22, which its own sponsors admit might be needed in case a threat develops 20 years in the future. In its FY 2009 budget request earlier this month, the Pentagon requested $4.1 billion to buy the last 20 F-22 planes. Let's leave it at that.