- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If the Pentagon can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on half a trillion dollars a year, our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.

So spoke Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, angry with the profligate ways of both Congress and the Pentagon. But he misspoke. With add-ons, including the Afghan war against Pakistan-based Taliban, Pakistan’s civil war against homegrown Taliban and a postwar surge of terrorist bombing in Iraq, where 130,000 U.S. troops are still based outside the cities, the Pentagon’s spending for 2010 will be close to $670 billion — or more than two-thirds of a trillion dollars.

When President Eisenhower warned the nation about the military-industrial complex in his valedictory address, he omitted the key word — “congressional.” Time and again, Congress’ armchair warriors have imposed costly weapons systems that the war fighters didn’t want or need.

Sorely and urgently needed today are combat drones, such as the hunter-killer MQ-9 Reaper. This successor to the Predator, at $8 million a copy, can fly 16 hours, with an operational ceiling of 50,000 feet, at 220 miles per hour, with bursts of 300 mph, and carry 1.5 tons of ordnance, including 14 air-to-ground missiles.

What Mr. Gates says the United States does not need is the F-22 Raptor, a fifth-generation stealth fighter-bomber. Total cost of the F-22 program so far is $62 billion, or about $350 million per aircraft. To build more, beyond the 187 in service, as Congress wants, would cost $143 million per aircraft at a time when the federal budget deficit is nearing $2 trillion — in a single year.

The original plan, circa 1983, was to buy 648 F-22s, beginning in 1996 for $60 million each. The war plane was designed to best anything the Soviet Union could put in the air. But the Soviet Union imploded 20 years ago. And F-22 production didn’t start until 2001; its first operational flight test was in 2004. Now this airborne white elephant requires 30 hours of maintenance for every hour it spends in the skies. This, in turn, drives the cost of one hour of flying to almost $50,000 (versus $30,000 for its predecessor, the F-15).

The Pentagon acknowledged earlier this month that just 55 percent of the F-22 fleet of 187 aircraft was available for stipulated missions in the period from October 2008 through May 2009. The Raptor has never flown combat missions over Iraq or Afghanistan; the (Grim) Reaper is in action round the clock over Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As with the manufacturing of most high-priced military hardware, subcontracts to vendors are spread around as many states as possible to garner congressional support. For the F-22, Lockheed Martin signed more than 1,000 subcontracts for 25,000 jobs in 44 states. This, in turn, has led Congress to force Mr. Gates to accept seven more F-22s at a cost of $1.75 billion. Wielding his veto pen, President Obama said “we do not need these planes,” and Congress backed down.

Mr. Gates’ preference is Lockheed’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, whose technology is a decade ahead of that of the F-22. It’s the designated successor to the F-16, still the world’s best fighter aircraft, and is made in three versions, including for short takeoff and vertical landing. Eight other nations are involved as co-producers and advance buyers. The U.S. Air Force is scheduled to get 1,763 JSFs; the Navy and the Marine Corps 680. Yet Congress, in its bizarre wisdom, shaved $530 million from the administration’s JSF request.

However, the future of warfare is now in unmanned drones. Piloted by remote control from thousands of miles away via satellites, they hover over targets for hours and guide weapons down to individual insurgent chiefs in their supposedly safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Even pilotless fighter aircraft are on the drawing board. Aerial dogfights between unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV) will become possible in the next decade.

This year, the U.S. Air Force will train more drone “jocks” than fighter jocks. For the defense bagatelle of $476 million, the military acquired 195 Predator drones at $4.5 million apiece. The more recent Reapers cost $17 million, and more than 30 are in action in the Afghan-Pakistan theater.

The British Royal Air Force has bought two spy-in-the-sky planes to snoop on terrorists worldwide — from 3 miles up. They can warn of potential ambushes and bomb planting. With the right sensor array, they can see if a suspected terrorist is at home, listen in to and record his mobile calls and tell you if his car engine is hot, warm or cold.

On the coming neurotech hit parade, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review, breakthroughs in understanding how the brain works and how to control it will soon make it possible to manipulate how we think, remember and even remotely control objects in ways never before possible.

George Mason University’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, looking at the inner workings of the mind, has come up with a ray that can temporarily neutralize the aggressive compulsion in a would-be terrorist’s mind.

A UCAV-cum-ray gun in our future? The ideal weapon for a casualty-averse superpower.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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