By Steven Abott – On April 6th, Defense Secretary Gates made a series of recommendations that would redirect American defense strategy and limit the purchase of expensive weapons. One of Gates’ most controversial recommendations was the decision to buy only four more F-22 Raptor fighter jets and then terminate the program at 187 aircraft. Some in the Air Force and many defense analysts argued that the Pentagon needed to buy an additional 60. Gates’ recommendation, however, is a reflection of a new effort to control defense spending and reestablish discipline in the acquisition process.
Constantly shifting requirements and program goals have made it increasingly difficult for the defense strategic planning and program acquisition system to deliver defense platforms on time and on budget. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently examined major weapon system cost increases and found that “…cumulative cost growth for DOD’s programs is higher than it was 5 years ago…” at nearly $300 billion.
Longer design time and the difficulty of terminating unnecessary systems have led the Pentagon’s intended weapons purchases to more than double in acquisition costs since 2000, to more than $1.5 trillion.
Planned during the dying days of the Cold War, the F-22 Raptor is an example of such programs. Originally meant to defeat a menacing and yet unrealized Soviet 5th generation fighter, the F-22 fleet was expected to reach more than 700 planes, starting in the mid 1990s. However, as the Soviet empire evaporated, the program was delayed. Begun as an advanced fighter focused on retaining “air superiority” over the Soviet Union, it became a “catch-all” system for the American military.
After the Cold War, no country could match US tactical air forces. New missions began to be grafted on the aircraft. Designed to share air-to-air information stealthily, the F-22 was given the additional mission of sharing information with the ground. The Air Force added modifications to allow the air superiority fighter to target enemy ground forces, as well. These new missions and technical changes added additional burdens to systems integrators and program managers. They also degraded the plane’s stealth characteristics, one of its main selling points.
Gates’ point in canceling the program is that spending on legacy systems like the F-22 is making it hard to fund the technologies to confront the requirements we currently face. As the F-22 was redesigned, prices soared, increasing from less than $165 million a copy in 1997 to $350 million (including research and development) in 2007. Increasingly, the funds are needed to acquire replacement F-16s for those lost supporting U.S. troops in Afghanistan, or for designing the next generation of advanced UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).
The disconnect between strategic planning and program acquisition is not new in the Pentagon, but it exemplifies the structural breakdown of the defense budgeting and acquisition systems.
The existing fleet of more than 100 F-22s has not flown a single mission over Iraq or Afghanistan. Through 2008, over $58 billion has been spent to design and build a system designed to fight an enemy that no longer exists. The planning system that nourished the F-22 will need to change.
There are efforts underway to bring the Pentagon’s procurement system under control. Senators Levin and McCain, Secretary Gates, House leaders, and the President himself, have called for discipline in defense budgeting and a redesign of our broken acquisition system. There is much work to be done. Discontinuing one system will not, by itself, bring reform to the strategic planning and acquisition system, but it is a good start.
Steven Abott is an intern with the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program.