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U.S. Fighter Modernization: An Alternative Approach

Buy fewer next-generation planes, upgrade existing ones, and make money available to better prepare for emerging challenges.

During the next few decades, the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps plan to buy three new types of fighters, some 3,700 aircraft altogether, at a cost likely to reach nearly $340 billion. These plans are almost certainly unaffordable. Worse yet, even if fully implemented, they may leave the U.S. military ill-prepared to meet the very different and, compared to today, far more serious challenges that are likely to emerge 10 to 20 years from now. Fortunately, there is a more affordable approach that would allow the United States to meet its near-term security requirements as well as to better prepare itself for meeting long-term challenges. It would combine purchases of a smaller number of next-generation fighters with continued purchases of new or upgraded current-generation aircraft and modest cuts in the number of fighter wings. It would also defer production of one of the new fighters for at least five years. Not only would this approach be more affordable, it would be wiser.

The three new fighters the services plan to buy are the F/A-18E/F, the F-22, and the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The Navy's F/A-18E/F, which began to be produced in fiscal year (FY) 1997, is intended to replace earlier F/A-18 models in the fighter/ground attack role and the A-6 in the deep interdiction role. The Navy plans to buy at least 548 of these aircraft. The Air Force plans to buy 333 F-22s to replace the F-15 air superiority fighter. Congress provided funding for the first two F-22s in FY 1999. Prototypes for the JSF are currently being developed in a competition between the Boeing Corporation and the Lockheed Martin Corporation, with plans for a family of 2,852 relatively low-cost aircraft to be used by all three services. Production is scheduled to begin around FY 2005.

The three new fighters would have impressive capabilities. The F/A-18E/F is a substantially upgraded version of the F/A-18C fighter. Both are designed to carry out air-to-air combat and ground attack missions, but the F/A-18E/F has a longer fuselage, larger wings, and a more powerful engine than the C version. It will also have greater range and payload capacity.

Unlike the F/A-18E/F, the F-22 is an entirely new aircraft. Its airframe shape and materials are designed to absorb or deflect radar signals. These "stealth" technologies are intended to make the F-22 substantially less vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles and air defense artillery that depend on radar guidance. The F-22 will also be the first aircraft ever to have a supersonic cruise capability. Existing aircraft can achieve supersonic speeds only through the use of afterburners that greatly increase fuel consumption. In addition, the F-22 will have a range of advanced avionics, including a new radar and displays that will provide the pilot with a much improved picture of the battle space, including the type, location, speed, and direction of enemy aircraft and the type and location of enemy surface-to-air missile threats. Although designed primarily to clear the sky of enemy fighters, the Air Force claims that the F-22 will also have a significant air-to-ground capability.

The JSF would also be an entirely new aircraft. The three planned variants of this fighter would be substantially better in terms of stealthiness, maneuverability, and avionics than the aircraft they are intended to replace. The Air Force and Navy versions of the JSF would be conventional takeoff and landing aircraft, whereas the Marine Corps version--like today's AV-8B--would have a short takeoff and vertical landing capability.

Are they affordable?

Unfortunately, the performance improvements of the three new fighters will come at a very high price. Altogether, the services plan to buy 3,733 of these aircraft at a cost estimated at $258 billion to $337 billion. (All figures in this article are expressed in FY 2000 dollars.) The lower estimate assumes that the services can meet their cost goals for each new system, whereas the higher estimate assumes that, consistent with historical experience, the new fighters will end up costing substantially more to produce. About $39 billion has already been spent on these programs.

If the military's unit-cost goals can be achieved, an average of $7.3 billion a year in procurement funding would be required during the next 27 years to pay for these plans. On the other hand, if the higher estimates, generated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), turn out to be correct, an average of $10.1 billion annually would be needed. In either case, another $800 million to $900 million a year would be needed for R&D. Altogether, completing these three programs would require average acquisition budgets (procurement plus R&D) of $8.1 billion to $11.1 billion a year during the FY 2000­2026 period.

By historical standards, these next-generation fighters are very costly. Depending on how successful cost-control efforts are, each F-22 is projected to cost $105 million to $124 million to procure. By comparison, the average F-15 cost only about $48 million. Similarly, each F/A-18E/F is likely to cost $70 million to $74 million, compared to $46 million for earlier F/A-18A-D models and $58 million for the F-14. Finally, the unit procurement cost of the JSF is projected to range from $43 million to $65 million for the Air Force variant, from $52 million to $77 million for the Marine Corps' version, and from $53 million to $78 million for the Navy's version. By contrast, the Air Force's current-generation F-16 fighters cost about $25 million each, the Marine Corps' AV-8B costs about $35 million, and, as already noted, the Navy's earlier model F/A-18s (some of which would also be replaced by F/A-E/Fs) cost $46 million each to produce. The R&D costs of these new systems are also much higher. For example, developing the F-22 has cost about three times as much as developing the F-15.

It is extremely doubtful that the military's modernization plans are affordable. In the past, fighter procurement has accounted for an average of about 4.6 percent of the Air Force's budget and 3.6 percent of the Navy's budget. If these shares are maintained in the future and the overall Department of Defense (DOD) budget stays flat in real inflation-adjusted terms at the level currently projected for FY 2005, the two services would have an average of about $7 billion a year available for fighter procurement during the FY 2000­2026 period. This is $300 million a year less than would be needed to pay for the administration's procurement plans (even assuming that the military's unit cost goals can be met) and $3.1 billion a year less than needed (assuming historical rates of cost growth). In addition, the services may find it difficult to fully fund the $800 million to $900 million a year required to complete R&D for the three aircraft.

As a result of the improved budget surplus projections made by CBO in early 2000, there is reason to believe that some additional funding will be provided for defense. However, the prospects for a major sustained increase that would include sufficient funding for the three fighter programs appear dim. The administration and Congress have placed higher priority on other policy goals. Likewise, it seems doubtful that the services would be able to shift sufficient funding from elsewhere in their budgets to pay for the three new fighters, because other major modernization projects are competing for their resources. If history is any guide, it is also likely that operation and support costs--military pay, operations and maintenance, family housing, and military construction--will grow in the future. In that case, the military may be hard pressed to provide even its historical share of funding for fighter modernization.

Reasons for constraint

There are a variety of reasons why the military's current fighter modernization plans are unnecessary. First, the U.S. fighter force today is far superior to all of its potential adversaries, both in numbers and capabilities. Iran, Iraq, and North Korea have a combined total of only about 1,200 aircraft. Moreover, according to CBO, about three-quarters of these are first- and second-generation aircraft, most of which are based on 1950s designs. Most of China's existing 2,500 fighters are first- and second-generation fighters. By 2005, China is expected to have only about 400 third-generation fighters and fewer than 100 fourth-generation fighters, which are based on designs from the 1970s or 1980s. By contrast, all current U.S. fighters are fourth-generation aircraft. In addition, the delivery of combat aircraft to developing countries dropped from an average of 578 per year in the 1983­1985 period to 237 per year in the 1995­1998 period, which suggests that the average age of Third World fighter fleets is increasing substantially.

Plans to buy three entirely new fighters and a total of 3,733 aircraft are almost certainly unaffordable.

Countries may also be modernizing their ground-based air defense forces less rapidly than they did during the Cold War. According to some reports, deliveries of surface-to-air missiles to developing countries fell from an average of about 5,500 per year in the mid-1980s to about 1,900 per year in the mid-1990s. Indeed, the value of all major arms deliveries to the developing world declined by about 50 percent between 1986 and 1998.

Overall, this information does not provide a complete picture of likely future threats to U.S. fighters. It is possible, for instance, that potential adversaries are making or will make significant modifications and upgrades to existing aircraft and surface-to-air missiles. Nevertheless, it appears that DOD could safely take a slower approach to fighter modernization and maintain smaller tactical air forces than are currently planned.

The ability to upgrade existing U.S. aircraft substantially at a reasonable cost also provides a compelling reason for going slower on modernization. Under current plans, the Air Force estimates that the average age of its fighter fleet will increase from about 12.5 years today to about 19.5 years in FY 2011 and then fall to about 18 years in FY 2015. Similarly, the Navy and Marine Corps estimate that the average age of their fighter forces will increase from 11.5 years today to 15 years in FY 2009 and then drop to 12.5 years in FY 2015. As aircraft age, they may develop structural and other problems, resulting in higher operation and support costs. However, it may be possible to avoid much of this cost growth if substantial funding is invested in a timely manner in modifying and upgrading existing aircraft. Indeed, many of the most important strides in fighter technology today involve improvements in avionics, which can often be retrofitted into existing aircraft.

Another factor that could allow DOD to prudently reduce its fighter forces and take a slower modernization approach is the enormous expansion of U.S. precision-guided munitions (PGM) capabilities. About 35 percent of the munitions used by NATO during the war in Kosovo were PGMs, including 90 percent of those used in the initial phase of the air campaign. During the past few decades, DOD has bought about 122,000 air-to-surface PGMs and 4,000 sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. During the next few years, it plans to convert 322 existing nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles to conventional versions of the missile, and to convert 624 older Tomahawks to the latest configuration.

The military also plans to buy large quantities of new kinds of PGMs. These include 88,000 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, a relatively inexpensive kit that can be attached to existing "dumb" bombs, and 24,000 Joint Standoff Weapons, a more expensive glide bomb. Both weapons will rely on information from DOD's Global Positioning System satellite network for guidance and could be delivered from almost any combat aircraft. Finally, DOD plans to buy 2,400 air-launched Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles, with a 100-mile range, and 1,353 Tactical Tomahawks, a new and less costly version of that missile.

In addition, it is critical to remember that fighters are only one element of U.S. air power, and fighter modernization is only one element affecting the capabilities of fighter forces. Other factors include the superior training received by U.S. personnel, electronic jamming provided by EA-6B electronic warfare aircraft, the refueling capability provided by a large fleet of tanker aircraft, the targeting and intelligence information provided by an unmatched network of communications and intelligence systems, a large airlift fleet, and long-range bombers. The recent war in Kosovo demonstrated that many of these capabilities, especially electronic warfare and other specialized aircraft support assets, are in short supply. Because of the high cost of the three new fighters, pursuing modernization may leave insufficient funding to adequately provide for these capabilities or to maintain high levels of training in the future.

Finally, perhaps the biggest problem with the military's current fighter modernization plans is that they may reduce the funding necessary to research and experiment with new kinds of forces that might be needed to supplement or displace more traditional forms of tactical air power 10 to 20 years from now. It is widely believed that we are in the midst of a revolution in military affairs that will significantly change the way wars are fought in the future. The driving forces behind this revolution are advances in technology, especially information technology, combined with potential changes in military organization and operational concepts. The services claim that their current fighter plans continue to make sense in light of the changes under way. However, much evidence suggests that a substantially different mix of capabilities will be needed to effectively employ air power in the future. For example, the proliferation of increasingly accurate ballistic and cruise missiles and the growing access of many countries to satellite imagery are likely to dramatically reduce the U.S. military's access to forward bases and increase the dangers posed to U.S. aircraft carriers operating near coastal waters.

All of the above trends suggest that, rather than focusing almost exclusively on the very costly modernization of an already large and effective fleet of tactical combat aircraft, the United States should devote greater resources to developing a range of other capabilities that might be better able to carry out some missions traditionally performed by tactical air forces. These alternatives include missile-firing ships, such as converted Trident ballistic missile submarines; long-range bombers; extended-range PGMs; and unmanned combat aerial vehicles.

An alternative approach

The most reasonable approach to modernization would involve scaling back and slowing current plans. The United States should rely more heavily on current-generation systems and do so further into the future. This could be done either by buying the latest new production versions of current-generation aircraft or by extending the lives of existing aircraft of these types. The best option would be to rely on a combination of new production aircraft and modifications and upgrades.

Buying too many new fighters may rob the military of the resources it needs to deal with emerging, longer-term security threats.

As noted earlier, current-generation U.S. fighters are far less expensive than the three proposed next-generation fighters. Assuming historical rates of cost growth, the three new fighters will cost roughly 50 to 150 percent more to produce than the current-generation fighters they are intended to replace, depending on the specific aircraft. Yet current-generation fighters remain highly effective. Moreover, in many cases, the latest production versions are far more effective than earlier versions. For example, according to the Air Force, the latest F-16C/D fighters are as much as five times more effective than the earliest versions of the F-16. Thus, simply replacing existing current-generation fighters with the latest versions of those aircraft would ultimately lead to the fielding of significantly more capable air forces.

It should also be possible to incorporate many, though certainly not all, of the advances planned for next-generation fighters into current-generation aircraft. For example, it may be possible to make a variant of the F-15 that includes advanced, electronically scanned array radar and is modified to incorporate significant stealth characteristics.

An even more cost-effective option would be to extend the life of existing fighter aircraft. Modification and upgrade efforts can vary dramatically in terms of cost and effectiveness. Typically, efforts aimed simply at extending the lives of existing systems are relatively inexpensive whereas those aimed at not only extending their service lives but also significantly improving the system's capabilities can be quite costly.

A relatively inexpensive modification effort involves the F-16 Mid Life Update program, now being pursued by several NATO countries. At a cost of about $5 million per aircraft, or less than 20 percent as much as a new F-16, existing fleets are being outfitted with new cockpits and avionics systems, including a new mission computer and radar upgrades. The program is expected to add at least 10 years to the life of the aircraft and perhaps as much as double their air-to-air combat capabilities.

An example of a more extensive and costly effort is the Marine Corps' AV-8B remanufacturing program, in which 72 older AV-8B Harrier IIs are being outfitted with a new fuselage, engine, and avionics, including a new radar and a night-attack capability. The program is expected to add about 6,000 hours, or roughly 20 to 25 years, to the life of the aircraft. The Marine Corps says the upgraded Harriers will cost about 75 percent as much as new-production Harriers.

It should also be possible to extend the lives of F-15s, early model F/A-18s, and other current-generation aircraft. The House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee recently reported that, "service life data from the Air Force indicates that the F-15 can exceed 16,000 flying hours without major structural changes." This equates to a service life of 50 years or more. Moreover, the subcommittee noted that F-15 combat capabilities could be "improved substantially with upgraded radars, jammers, and helmet-mounted targeting systems." The subcommittee also concluded that for about $200,000 per aircraft, F-15s could be upgraded with a new datalink, which allows aircraft to share target information and, tests suggest, could lead to a fivefold improvement in air combat kill ratios.

Next-generation investments

Although current-generation fighters, especially when incorporating the latest advances, are likely to remain highly capable well into the 21st century, it would be prudent to purchase at least some next-generation fighters during the next decade. Buying 100 to 200 F-22s instead of the 333 currently planned would substantially improve the effectiveness of U.S. land-based tactical air forces and still yield significant savings as compared to the current plan. According to the Air Force, the 42 F-117 stealth fighters deployed to the Persian Gulf during the 1991 war proved highly effective in destroying many of the most critical and heavily defended targets in the first few days of the war and played an especially important role in the collapse of the Iraqi air defense system. Similarly, a force of 100 to 200 F-22s, supplemented with a formidable fleet of the latest F-15s, would be adequate to clear the skies of the most dangerous air-to-air threats that are likely to emerge during the next several decades. For similar reasons, the United States should buy about 200 to 300 F/A-18E/Fs instead of the 548 now planned.

For three key reasons, production of the JSF should be delayed for at least another five years. First, the United States would already have highly capable tactical air forces, especially if the military buys some F-22s and F/A-18E/Fs and procures a mix of new-production and remanufactured current-generation fighters. Second, buying any JSFs before F-22 and F/A-18E/F purchases are completed, as currently planned, would almost certainly prove unaffordable. At $153 billion to $223 billion, the JSF is by far the most costly of the planned new fighters. Third, and most important, a five-year delay would give the military time to develop and experiment with new kinds of technologies, such as unmanned combat aerial vehicles and Tomahawk-equipped submarines, as well as new force structures and operational concepts. These investments could prove critical to maintaining U.S. power projection capabilities over the long term, particularly given the increasing access of potential adversaries to ballistic and cruise missiles and satellite imagery.

In the short run, the JSF program should be turned into an extended technology development effort. If in five years or so it appears that this aircraft will be needed to counter future threats, then a decision could be made to proceed with full-scale development and eventual production beginning about 2010. On the other hand, if unmanned combat aerial vehicles and other new kinds of forces have proven themselves, or the threat posed to tactical air forces by ballistic and cruise missile proliferation has seriously eroded the value of such forces, it may make more sense to focus resources on producing and fielding these new kinds of forces.

In addition to scaling back the planned purchases of the F-22 and the F/A-18E/F and deferring the JSF for at least five years, it also makes sense to reduce the size of our tactical air forces. Even relatively modest cuts in the existing force structure of 20 Air Force fighter wings, 11 Navy carrier wings, and 4 Marine Corps air wings could yield significant savings. For example, cutting two Air Force fighter wings and one or two aircraft carriers (the ships plus their air wings) could yield more than $3 billion a year in savings over the long term.

To be sure, in the near term, force structure cuts of this magnitude would reduce the military's ability to fight and quickly win two major theater wars nearly simultaneously--a current U.S. requirement--and to carry out a broad range of forward presence and contingency operations. However, the reduction in capabilities might be relatively modest. At worst, it would still leave the United States with a force capable of winning a single major regional war quickly and decisively, while assuming a defensive posture in the second theater, and would support a less extensive range of forward presence and contingency operations. Moreover, if these next-generation aircraft are as effective as the military claims they will be, it may eventually be possible to carry out even the current two-theater strategy with smaller air forces.

The major question facing the military's fighter modernization program today is not whether the services should continue to invest in tactical air power. Even the approach outlined here would require spending $6 billion a year or more on modernization over the long term. Rather, the question is whether the military can develop an approach to modernization that is affordable as well as capable of providing at least a modest hedge against the possibility that warfare in 2010 or 2020 will turn out to look very different from the 1991 Gulf War or the 1999 war in Kosovo.

Steven M. Kosiak ( is director of budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.