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Budget cuts - 400 billion from DoD? What goes, what stays?

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Opinion Zone,Bruce McQuain

Having lived and served in the military during the post-Vietnam drawdown and the end of the Cold War "peace dividend," I'm very aware of the negative impact cuts at DoD had on military readiness during those times. 

I'm also very aware of how expensive it was in the long run to bring our military back up to necessary levels again, both in troops and equipment.

That's not to say that DoD can't save money and shouldn't be tasked to do so, but it also warns us that we need to be exceedingly careful when we commit to cuts there so we are sure that we cut unnecessary costs and not necessary future capbilities.  Yet there are again calls out there to cut capabilites, not just cost.

What am I talking about? 

Amazingly after cutting back on the F-22 raptor from an initial buy that was supposed to be in the several hundreds, we ended up with only 187. Consider that this 5th generation air superiority fighter was to replace approximately 800 4th generation air superiority fighters.  Is it any wonder, when you cut production like that, that the cost of the airplane shoots up over a 100 million per copy? Of course not.  

Not only did we see the cost increase, but we cut our capability.  Anyone who can make the argument that 187 aircraft can replace 800 others in the same role, do it well and cover all our possible future commitments and contingencies is a wizard. Even the Airforce made it clear that at a minimum they needed about 240 of the aircraft just to cover most of the contingencies they identified.

We're hearing rumbles now that the same sort of thing is going to happen to the F-35.  The F-35 is different than the F-22 in that it is a strike fighter - meaning it is used in multiple roles, but mostly in support of troops on the ground.  It will be the most advanced fighter in the world. Already the F-35's more advanced stealth technology is being streamed to the F-22 to upgrade its stealth capabilities. 

We have plans on the books to build 2,443 of the F-35. At that production number, the F-35 will cost about the same as a mission capabile 4th generation fighter we're flying today - except it will be stealthy and instead of looking like a beach ball on enemy radar, it will be more like a BB if it is seen at all. 

It will bring advanced avionics as well. A fused sensor system will be a huge upgrade from the federated system now operational in 4th generation fighters. A federated system means that a pilot, in addition to flying the aircraft, has to monitor all sorts of sensor displays and absorb the information on them. The "fusion" of that information takes place in the pilot's head as he tries to decide what is or isn't a threat. In a fused system, the aircraft's software does that for the pilot and on a single display in front of him identifies threats and helps prioritize and engage them as well. He concentrates on the mission and flying the aircraft.

That's a huge technological leap forward, increases survivability incredibly and is exactly how we'll maintain our 60 year edge in the skies.  And don't forget - from 5th generation fighters 6th generation fighters are born.

But if we begin chopping and chipping away at those planned numbers, and given that we've already radically reduced our F-22 fleet, what F-35s we build are going to be very expensive. Not only that, but reduced numbers will hurt our capabilities.  Less airplanes mean fewer availble to fulfill the multiple roles this aircraft must fill.  And that could mean troops in combat don't have the close air support they may desperately need at a critical time.  

While I support spending cuts in general and cuts in cost at DoD specifically, I draw the line at programs where such cuts cost us capability.  That would be the case with cuts to the F-35 program. With China  in the early stages of developing their own stealth 5th generation fighter and Russia well on the way with its fighter, cuts in our program would be cuts to capability and, in the long run, possibly jeopardize our national security.

Intelligent cuts to costs at the Pentagon are a no-brainer. No one is arguing against them. However, cuts to capabilities are not "intelligent cuts" and that's why the F-35 program, among other programs that increase and maintain our combat edge, should be left alone.

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