War Stories

How Much Stealth Is Too Much Stealth?

Six ways to cut Bush’s bloated defense budget.

The congressional armed services committees are marking up President Bush’s $399.1 billion military budget this week. (This amount does not include the supplemental $70 billion to pay for the war in Iraq and the reconstruction afterward.) Meanwhile, the Pentagon is starting up its “lessons of the war” review of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Why not combine the two and examine the budget in light of lessons gleaned from the war? It wouldn’t take long to see that we’re about to waste, next year alone, tens of billions of dollars. Here are a few programs that could be drastically cut back or eliminated:

1. The F-22 Raptor stealth-fighter aircraft. The Air Force wants $5.2 billion to buy 22 of these planes in fiscal year 2004. (That’s nearly a quarter-billion dollars per plane.) By the time procurement is completed several years from now, it wants to have built 295 planes at a total cost of $69.7 billion. A “stealth” plane  is designed with rounded curves and special materials to elude enemy air-defense radars and minimize the risk of getting shot down. The question here: How many stealth planes do we need? Almost no non-stealth American planes have been shot down in the past few wars, after all.

More to the point, the F-22 was designed as an “air-superiority” stealth plane—in other words, a plane for engaging in air-to-air combat, shooting down enemy fighter planes without being detected itself. Yet our existing air forces are so mighty that, in the last decade’s worth of wars, no enemy has dared to put so much as a single fighter plane up in the sky. If it had, our non-stealthy F-15, F-16, and F-18 fighter planes would have shot them down in a blink. (The Air Force has changed the name of the Raptor to the F/A-22, the “A” standing for “attack,” to indicate it can also attack targets on the ground. But this is a ruse. To perform this mission, the plane would have to carry very tiny bombs that could fit inside the same bays as its air-to-air missiles. Other existing air-superiority planes, such as the F-15 and F-16, have been modified for ground-attack roles by paving their bellies with munitions. But these munitions stick out; putting them on the belly of an F-22 would wipe out its stealthiness.)

Stealth is nice to have—the 100 or so B-2 bombers and F-117A attack planes already in our inventories did a good job of taking out Iraqi and Serbian air-defense radars in the first night or two of those wars—but we don’t need very much of it.

2. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. This is a smaller, single-engine version of the F-22, so the same questions apply. The JSF is still in its early stages. The Pentagon wants $4.4 billion this year to continue research and development. By the time it’s ready for manufacturing, somewhere around the end of the decade, officials anticipate spending $226 billion for a couple thousand aircraft. This is the first combat plane to be built for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines (hence the designation “joint”)—a nice, efficient idea for a time when the services are planning and fighting wars more jointly. But, again, why all this money for so much stealth?

3. The AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter. The one time in Gulf War II that a bunch of Apache Longbows went out to attack an Iraqi tank regiment, 30 of the 33 came back all shot up, and they never got sent out on a dangerous mission again. Two of these choppers were shot down during the war. Quarter-century-old A-10 fixed-wing attack planes did the job much better. Even older, high-flying B-52 bombers, armed with cheap JDAM smart bombs, did it better. The Army wants $777 million next year to continue buying Apaches. They have their place, but they cost more than they’re worth.

4. The RAH-66 Comanche helicopter. The Army wants $1.1 billion for this new chopper, designed mainly to conduct reconnaissance and scouting operations. It expects to spend $47.9 billion to buy 1,200 of the machines before the program is done. In an age when unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, can do the same thing at lower cost (in terms of money and lives), do we really need so many, if any?

5. The D-5 Trident II Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile. Here’s a really easy one. The Navy wants $780 million to buy 12 more of these nuclear weapons. Each D-5 is armed with eight warheads, each of which releases between 300 and 475 kilotons of explosive energy, along with plenty of radioactive fallout. The Pentagon developed the D-5 in the 1980s in order to give the nuclear-submarine fleet the same “hard-target capability” the land-based ICBMs possessed—in other words, the same combination of power and accuracy needed to destroy Soviet ICBMs in their blast-hardened missile silos. (The D-5 can travel 4,000 miles and land within 300 feet of its target.) The obvious question: Why the hell are we still buying these weapons? The Russians are blowing up their own missile silos. There is no conceivable scenario in which we would want to blow them up in anger. (There wasn’t much of a credible scenario even during the Cold War.) We have about 7,500 nuclear warheads, spread out among submarines, land-based missiles, and bombers. Nearly 300 D-5s—in other words, 2,400 D-5 warheads—are already fitted in 11 of our 18 nuclear-missile submarines. The Navy has started to convert four of those subs to carry non-nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Air Force has also long been modifying B-52, B-1, and B-2 bombers to drop conventional bombs. You don’t need to be a peacenik to say, “Enough, already.”

6. Missile Defense. The president wants $9.1 billion next year for his dream system that promises to knock down at least one ballistic missile that a rogue nation or terrorist might fire our way. I have written often of the problems, technical and otherwise, facing this program. (Click here, here, here, and here.) It is simply not ready to absorb such lavish resources, especially while other forms of national nuclear protection—port defenses, for example—are shortchanged. Congress should take note, however, of one pertinent bit of legerdemain in the military budget. The Pentagon claims that $24.3 billion of the total budget is being allocated to “transformation goals“—in other words, to programs designed to reform the military into a lighter, lither, more lethal fighting force. However, the fine print reveals that over one-third of this sum includes the budget for missile defense, which, however else it’s depicted, has nothing to do with “transformation.”

A $399.1 billion military budget is a very large budget these days. It’s $16.9 billion higher than last year’s budget, $70.1 billion beyond the budget in place when Bush took office. The Pentagon’s five-year plan envisions further increases—to $419.6 billion in fiscal 2005, $439.7 billion in ‘06, $460 billion in ‘07, $480.4 billion in ‘08, and $502.7 billion in 2009. Meanwhile, even after 9/11, the world has not become that much more threatening a place. The $399.1 billion that Bush wants for next year represents more money than the military budgets of the 14 next-mightiest nations combined. The U.S. Army has 10 active divisions plus eight in the National Guard. It took just two active divisions, plus one Marine expeditionary force, to conquer Iraq, which had been considered our most daunting threat. With the advances in technology and strategy, the U.S. military has just begun to figure out how to get a lot more done on the battlefield with a lot fewer troops, weapons, and bombs. The larger question to be resolved here: Do we really need to spend this much money?