The Government Accountability Office, that ever-flowing font of military advice, is at it again. It has sent forth a new report—“Tactical Aircraft: DOD Needs a Joint and Integrated Investment Strategy”—that takes a hard shot at service fighter plans.
What does GAO recommend? Pre-emptive surrender. The military is urged to curtail “service-centric” programs, link arms jointly to rub out “duplication” of capabilities, and accept “efficiencies”—which is GAO-speak for “reductions.”
Anyone with rudimentary knowledge of fighter planning will sense something wrong here. It has been about three decades since the US bought a new generation of fighters. USAF’s F-15s, F-16s, and A-10s and the Navy’s F-14s and F/A-18s began arriving in the 1970s, and the Marine Corps AV-8 shortly after. Is it plausible that the world’s richest nation cannot bear up under a 30-year fighter replacement cycle? The question answers itself.
Today’s fighter program is modest, comprising a total of 183 F-22s for the Air Force, 462 F/A-18E/Fs for the Navy, and 2,458 F-35s for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. Plans also call for lengthening the service lives and upgrading the capabilities of a few hundred F-15s, A-10s, and other “legacy” fighters.
The proper perspective on the size and cost of this plan can be gleaned from data contained in the GAO’s own 81-page report. For example:
To be sure, we don’t know anyone who thinks execution of the fighter plan will be a snap. Certainly, that is not the case in the service we know best—the Air Force. Let us stipulate that the GAO’s auditors have a certain point in their worries.
Note, however, that all of the worries flow from a specific assumption about defense outlays—that the DOD “topline” is fixed and cannot be adjusted upward. The bean counter’s preferred solution in the event of cost growth is to trim a program to fit an arbitrary budget level. That is certainly one option. Indeed, that has been DOD’s favored approach for years.
Regular readers of this page are well aware of our view, based upon hard fact, that the US today spends a relatively small share of its national wealth on defense—less than four percent of GDP. That is a fact official Washington should ponder long and hard before deciding to further cut fighter programs.
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