Hindsight is always twenty-twenty. In light of recent struggles with military projects, I decided to write this hypothetical op-ed. One of my chief inspirations was a forum post where people were talking about the cancelled Space Shuttle as this hideous missed opportunity-why, it was a reusable craft that could pay for itself with commercial launches! The fun was that while we know now that the “self-funding” goal was too ambitious, someone who never had to experience it wouldn’t.
Now for what never was:
OP-ED: The missed opportunity.
The US Navy’s carrier decks have never been more diverse. A state-of-the-art carrier wing houses an air superiority squadron of Lockheed F-24 Hellcats, a squadron of A-6F Intruder IIs, and two squadrons of F-14 Super Tomcats-themselves divided into the 21st Centruy F-14E “Tomcat 21” and the mildly upgraded F-14Q “Quickstrike”. In practice, most carriers house “leftover” F/A-18 Hornets and F-14 “legacy” Tomcats, adding to the logistical backlog.
On land, the F-23 Kite now enters service as the US Air Force’s mainline air superiority fighter, despite having less powerful missiles and radar than the Navy’s F-24. The US operates four different air superiority fighters, four ‘multirole’ jacks of all trades, two specialized close-support aircraft, and two specialized “deep-strike” aircraft.
To find out this situation is not difficult. One need only look at the post-Cold War overcapacity in military aviation, and the desire of the military-industrial-complex to avoid any downsizing. Sen. Shaun Winters and Rep. Bill Morgan, the chairmen of the Appropriations and Armed Services Committee, both hail from New York-and both are very, very, good to Long Island-centered Northrop Grumman.
The A-6F was the most egregious example of the triumph of pork over common sense. Not only was it a simple update of an old, subsonic plane designed in the 1950s, but in terms of role, it clashes with its own successors. The Super Tomcat offers very similar performance and range in an agile, supersonic fighter body, and it is even made by the same company in almost the same location.
Grumman themselves were cool to the A-6F, feeling it could jeopardize the Super Tomcat and feeling the burden of producing still more aircraft. The real support came from the subcontractors and parts suppliers-all healthy donors to Winters’ and Morgan’s campaigns, and spread farther than just Queens and Nassau.
Thankfully, A-6F production stopped. But the looming gap in fighter quantity is fast approaching. Nothing is in sight to replace the thousands of aging F-16s-except maybe the Super Tomcat. Carrier crews will have to juggle parts for five types of airplane, and the taxpayers will be denied a true ‘peace dividend’.
And that is without the effects this aero-naval spending spree has had on the rest of the military. The Army’s much-ballyhooed “LI-21” plans for more of a focus on light infantry exist in large part because the buildup has hacked away at its budgets.
There was one spot of hope. The Defense Department initiated a “Joint Strike Fighter” program. This would provide inter-service commonality of parts, and, with twenty-first century computer design, make true multirole stealth planes that could serve equally well on carriers, VTOL amphibious ships, and conventional airbases. Both the capability and savings would have been immense compared to the current hodgepodge of souped-up Vietnam designs and one-trick ponies foisted on the actual military.
Naturally, Winters wasted little time in attacking the JSF program, and succeeded in killing it.