May 6, 2003 (by Lieven Dewitte) - The effectiveness of the F-16 and other aging combat planes during the Iraq war is fanning a debate over the need for new fighter programs that are expected to cost taxpayers more than $300 billion.
Reasserting its reputation as one of the world's most versatile fighters, the F-16 flew more than 2,000 missions against Iraqi troops, missile sites, artillery emplacements and leadership targets.
In Washington, critics of expanding defense budgets point to the F-16's performance to build their case against next-generation fighters that the Air Force says are crucial to continued U.S. dominance in the skies.
The biggest targets are:
- Lockheed Martin's F/A-22 Raptor, which has increased in cost by 128 percent since development started in 1986, according to the General Accounting Office. The F/A-22 has sustained nearly $20 billion in overruns over the past six years.
- A Lockheed-led program to develop the F-35 joint strike fighter, a multi-role warplane to complement the F/A-22 and replace several older aircraft, including the F-16.
Lockheed Martin, based in Fort Worth, Texas, hopes to build nearly 3,000 F-35s for the United States and the United Kingdom starting in 2006.
But defense watchdog groups and budget-cutters in Congress are calling on the Pentagon to scale back purchases of newer jet fighters and rely more on the older aircraft.
The Congressional Black Caucus wants to cancel the F/A-22 and replace it with increased purchases of modified F-16s. Each F/A-22 costs at least $133.6 million, and the GAO says the average price tag exceeds $200 million.
The Air Force recently bought F-16s for about $38 million apiece and F-15s for about $30 million. The F-35 joint strike fighter, one version of which will be able to land vertically, costs $37 million to $47 million.
Although the Air Force has stopped buying the F-16 - its mainstay fighter since 1979 - to begin phasing in next-generation planes, the single-engine jet remains popular overseas. Air forces in 23 countries have bought more than 4,300 of them.
Long before the latest Iraq war, budget hawks in Washington argued the government could ill afford the three new tactical fighter programs costing $329 billion through the next decade.
In addition to the F-35 and the F/A-22 for the Air Force, the Navy has begun buying 548 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, advanced models of the F/A-18 Hornets that went into service in 1983.
F/A-18s from the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort also took part in the war in Iraq.
In essence, critics of the newer aircraft say their venerable predecessors, with modifications, can perform the same mission at less cost. But Lockheed Martin, the Air Force and proponents in Congress say it is dangerous to base an argument strictly on money.
Neither the F-16 nor the F-15 has the radar-evading stealth capability offered by the F/A-22 and F-35. The two older fighters, said Deputy Defense Undersecretary Michael Wynne, the Pentagon's chief weapons purchaser, "are not anywhere close to being as capable" as their successors.
Rep. Martin Frost, a Texas Democrat who has several large defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin, in and around his district, says the newer aircraft are essential "to stay ahead" of the adversary.
The Raptor, first known as the F-22, was conceived in the mid-1980s as a radar-evading dogfighter that could penetrate deep into the Soviet Union and demolish Soviet aircraft. Its duties have expanded in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, prompting the Air Force to rename it the F/A-22 to include ground-attack missions.
Now in low-rate production, the Raptor is scheduled to enter service in 2005 as a replacement for the F-15. The Air Force originally wanted to buy 750, but cost overruns have shrunk the projected number to 276 planes.
Production costs have risen to $42.2 billion, exceeding a $36.8 billion cap imposed by Congress in 1998.
Comptroller General David Walker, who heads the General Accounting Office, says the plane "will be the best in the world" but warns that costs could encroach on development of other weapons programs.
Others, however, believe the government should cut its losses and abandon the program.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, says the Pentagon could buy 500 F-16s over the next 10 years and save taxpayers $25 billion.
Richard Aboulafia, an aeronautics expert with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., says the Iraq war provided a "major boost" to those arguing in favor of extending the life of F-16s and F-15s.
But he added: "This was absurdly easy from an air power standpoint. As it turned out, all we needed was determination against a demoralized foe."