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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Weaponry or Waste?


In a September 1999, speech at the Citadel military academy, then--candidate George W. Bush pledged to skip a generation of weapons. Earlier this week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, at his confirmation hearing, reiterated the possible need to “leap frog” some weapon systems.

Studies by independent research organizations and experts estimate that the defense budget is overprogrammed by $50 billion to $100 billion per year. To overcome the disparity between programs on the books and likely budgets will require hard decisions about which weapons to curtail. Many unneeded or Cold War-era weapons could be candidates for President-elect Bush’s chopping block.

The President-elect’s own advisers have complained that the plethora of tactical fighter aircraft programs must be reassessed. According to the National Defense University, the consensus view among U.S. government and private threat assessments is that U.S. aircraft will face no substantial threat from enemy aircraft from now until 2025. Yet the U.S. military is developing or beginning to build three new tactical fighters--the Air Force’s F-22, the Navy’s F-18E/F, and the Joint Strike Fighter (a collaborative effort 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 exorbitantly expensive F-22 ($180 million per copy), designed primarily to battle advanced Soviet aircraft that were never built, is a prime candidate for cancellation before it goes into limited production. Also, the production of the costly F-18E/F, at best a marginal improvement over the F-18C/D, could be terminated. Given the benign post-Cold War threat environment and U.S. advances in avionics and missiles, worn out F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s could be replaced with upgraded versions of F-15Cs, F-15Es, F-18C/Ds, and F-16C/Ds.

The tactical air forces will eventually need a new aircraft, but one that is optimized 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-22 tiltrotor aircraft--a plane that takes off like a helicopter, shifts its propellers, and flies like a plane--that was designed transport Marines and their light equipment to the beach. The aircraft--at $80 million per copy-has a mission that could be performed adequately and more cheaply by Army Blackhawk or CH-53 heavy lift helicopters.

In addition, the Navy’s Virginia-class attack submarine and DD-21 destroyer are candidates for cancellation. According to the National Defense University’s consensus threat assessment, during the 2001 to 2025 time period, war in the open ocean is unlikely. With the demise of the Soviet Navy--the only threat to the world’s oceans--the Navy has resorted to justifying more submarines on the basis of their ability to collect intelligence. But at about $2 billion per copy, the submarine is an expensive way to carry out that mission and is limited to collection in coastal regions. The money saved by truncating production of the Virginia-class would buy many intelligence satellites and manned and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, which do not face the limitations of the submarine. With a negligible open ocean threat, no replacement for the Virginia-class is needed for quite some time, and the submarine fleet can be reduced in size.

The DD-21 destroyer-costing at least $750 million apiece and optimized for the land attack mission--will feature two guns and 120 to 250 vertical launch system (VLS) tubes to fire missiles. The Marines suffer from insufficient fire support from the sea, but they need high volume, suppressive gunfire to keep the enemy forces in their foxholes. Instead, the DD-21--reflecting the Navy''s priority of deep strike--is a missile ship with a couple of ancillary guns. Also, in a time of uncertain threats and constrained resources for defense, the Navy already has thousands of VLS tubes and should buy only versatile multi-mission ships rather than ships optimized for a narrowly focused mission.

The Army’s costly Comanche light scout and attack helicopter ($30 million apiece) was originally designed to fight Soviet tanks in Europe and is no longer needed. In the Gulf War, no scout helicopters were used with Apache heavy attack helicopters. If a scout aircraft is needed in the future, unmanned aerial vehicles might be more effective and would not put the lives of pilots at risk. Although the Army is attempting to put the heavy Crusader mobile artillery piece on a diet, the gun system does not mesh well with the goal of making the Army lighter.

If George W. Bush intends to fulfill his campaign pledge to skip a generation of weapons, he certainly has a rich menu of unneeded programs from which to cut.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


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