News Briefings

DoD News Briefing

Thursday, July 22, 1999 - 2:00 p.m.
Presenter: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon.

Q: The F-22. They're taking a vote today. Could you kind of walk us through one more time why the Pentagon, the Air Force, and Secretary Cohen believe that this aircraft is so critical and so vital, and why would a delay of one year necessarily lead to killing off the program?

Mr. Bacon: First of all, air dominance is fundamental to the way the U.S. fights its battles today. It is one of the fundamental pillars of battlefield success. It would range right up there with good intelligence, good command and control. But if you go back and look at DESERT STORM, for instance, we shot down 45 Iraqi planes in air-to-air engagements. We established complete air dominance which allowed us to prevail both in the air war, of course, but then also in the ground war that followed.

If you look at what happened in Operation ALLIED FORCE, we quickly established air dominance, both through air-to-air intercepts, taking down large numbers of MiGs very quickly when they came up to challenge allied planes; but also air dominance against the missile system. It took some time, but it was also fundamental to the success of the air operation, the most successful in history, and that is what brought us victory and allowed the peacekeepers to go in today.

I think you can go back through history. We discovered the importance of air dominance, of air superiority during World War II when we initially deployed bombers without fighter support and had very heavy losses. Then we devised the P-51 fighter which were able to protect our bomber fleets and slowly reversed the course of the air war and began to inflict massive damage on our enemies.

We did not have air dominance the beginning of Vietnam and we paid a very heavy price for it. It wasn't until the end of that war that we began to achieve air dominance.

We learned a lesson from Vietnam and we invested very heavily in the 1970s in the F-15 fighter which has been the premier air-to-air interceptor and air superiority plane in the world really for the last 20-25 years. But 20 and 25 years is a long time in the era of rapidly changing technology where new computers come out in several generations a year. There is substantial progress being made in materials and fasteners and avionics and all sorts of elements that come together into making a good fighter plane.

So the Air Force has been working for several years to leap head to the next generation of air superiority and that would be the F-22 fighter, designed to give us air dominance well into the next century.

We do this against two emerging threats. The first is continuing improvements in surface-to-air missiles. In Kosovo we had to worry about the SA-2, the SA-3, the SA-6, but there are now the SA-10, the SA-12, more capable missiles.

Secondly, fighter development has not stalled. The Russians are working on a new fighter, the SU-35, an air-to-air fighter. And we believe that we have to maintain the air dominance that's so fundamental to our success in air, at land and at sea, that we have to move to the next generation of fighter.

Now why is the F-22 the right fighter? First of all, it is able to cruise at 1.5 times the speed of sound without using its afterburner which means it can fly unusually fast for unusually long periods of time compared to current day fighters. This expands its maneuverability and its range dramatically in air-to-air engagements.

Second, it will be more stealthy. Obviously, stealth is something that we have invested heavily in since the F-117 including the B-2 bomber, and it's proven to be an extremely important component of our air dominance suite, a very important fabric in that suite.

The F-22 would be far stealthier than the F-15.

Third, it would have advanced avionics. It would be the next generation forward in avionics which would allow it to target and acquire planes much farther out; basically first detection, first shot, and first kill capability. That's what we want to maintain.

Those are the reasons why the F-22 is an important airplane and why it's fundamental to the strength of our Air Force. It's ironic, it seems to me, that coming out of what's been called the most successful air engagement in history that Congress would even contemplate denying us the hardware that would allow us to maintain this dominance well into the next century.

Q: How is it then that the Pentagon, by its own admission, got so stunned and surprised by the congressional action? How is it that this happened? It seems it wasn't in the cards that you saw.

Mr. Bacon: I think that the committee'll have to ask the committee how they did this. But the fact of the matter is this wasn't something they had discussed with us, their feelings about this. It was something they worked on on their own, quietly, and relatively secretly -- stealthfully, I might say.

But the problem here is that the F-22 is set up today with some fixed price contracts for the initial phases of production. Should we not be able to go ahead with the first production models--and that's what the $1.8 billion is for--we would have to abrogate those contracts.

It would have two impacts. First, it would of course lift any cost discipline or cost restraints that have been placed on the contractor by the fixed price contracts. Two, it would delay further work on the plane for a year or even more. We estimate that as a result of those two functions, that the cost of the program would increase somewhere between $5 and $6 billion just because of the delay in the program and the lapsing of the contractual discipline that currently exists.

Q: Then would you cancel it?

Mr. Bacon: I think that remains to be seen. Clearly, this is a very important weapon, and it's not just important to the Air Force, it's important to all forces that depend on air dominance as one of the keys to success. I think that's what people need to realize here. We're not just talking about an Air Force plane. Our services work together. The Army cannot succeed today unless we have air dominance. It can succeed, but the losses would be much greater... the time would be much greater. So for the Army to succeed, they depend on the Air Force quickly establishing air dominance. The Navy depends on air dominance as well. As I think all of you realize, air dominance was a very important factor in what happened in ALLIED FORCE and certainly an important factor in what happened in DESERT STORM.

Q: The main criticism is one: that it's too expensive--the cost has escalated; and two, that there is no comparable aircraft either out there now or on the horizon that anybody would have in significant numbers. So they argue that we can delay a generation, deal with upgraded F-15s, and come back and build another airplane when the threat emerges.

The question is, "How long does it take to develop a new airplane?" And, "What's the possibility that an airplane developed ten years from now if the threat emerges would be any cheaper than the F-22?"

Mr. Bacon: I don't think we build planes to be cheap. We build planes to be effective. Obviously, there have been some cost problems with the F-22. The Air Force and its contractors are working very hard to address those problems. There have been some innovative measures in the way the F-22's been designed and built that were designed to hold down the cost. They may not have succeeded as much as people hoped, but it has been a testing ground for innovative design and procurement techniques.

I don't think that complacency should be part of the military vocabulary, at least not part of the vocabulary of militaries that want to be successful. By successful, I mean winning battles while holding casualties to the lowest possible level, which of course is everybody's goal -- not just our goal--but everybody in the world's goal. We've been able to do that because we have the best people, because we have the best technology, and because we have the best commanders, the best training, all across the board.

I think if you begin to chip away at any part of that equation, you run the risk of not being able to prevail as well in the future as we have in the past and that would be a very costly price to pay. That's why the Air Force is determined to go ahead with this.

I can't tell you right now how long it would take if we started from scratch in ten years to develop a new plane. The Air Force has I think a well-sequenced program here, and the first part of the program is to work on the F-22--the air superiority plane--and then to move to the Joint Strike Fighter, which would be the strike aircraft of the future. It would be to the F-16 what the F-22 is to the F-15. That plane would come in somewhat later than the F-22, so we would take care of air dominance and then retain our attack dominance that we would get from the Joint Strike Fighter.

Q: Ken, the same committee that was gunning for the F-22, or is gunning for the F-22, has also issued a committee report sharply critical of the Pentagon for ignoring congressional direction--or in some cases--law in how money is spent. Either money intended for one purpose is in fact spent by the Pentagon on other things, and they say it amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars. What's going on with that?

Mr. Bacon: First of all, our defense budget is around $260 billion so, as much money as several hundreds of millions of dollars is, it's a very small percentage of $260 billion, and I think that's important for keeping this in perspective.

Second, I think you also need to recognize, as Secretary Cohen said earlier today, we have 5,000 programs in our budget--separate programs, separate line items in our program. These divide to maybe two or three times as many sub-programs, but there are 5,000 major programs in our budget.

We send up millions of pages of documentation every year to support these programs, both in testimony, in prepared briefs, in responses to questions, etc., to Congress. We try very hard to comply with every single requirement that Congress imposes on us. This committee has out of 5,000 programs focused on a handful-- around six programs--that they claim there are some.. that they see some problems with. Many of these problems, when you parse them out, deal with questions like notification. Was the committee notified in time about a change in contracting methods? Was it notified in time about a new tranche in spending? Was it notified in time about some change in the program? That's one category of disagreement.

Obviously, we try to live up to our notification responsibilities, but like everybody else sometimes checks arrive late in the mail. We try to live up to these deadlines, we don't always make it, and we apologize for that.

In one case--the case involving a so-called black program or secret program--it was started without proper notification. As soon as we learned about that, Deputy Secretary Hamre went to the committee, apologized, and notified them about what was going on. It was an oversight.

Another category focused on by the committee in its report had to do with whether funds were spent out of procurement accounts or out of research and development accounts. In some weapon systems, particularly satellites, this is an ongoing debate both within the Department and within Congress as to if you're dealing with a type of weapon that might be one of a kind of one of a very small number of weapons you would build, whether there's much of a distinction between R&D funding on the one hand and procurement funding on the other. That's, as I said, certainly true with satellites.

These are problems, many of which have been cured already because when we found out about them we went to the committee and apologized and gave the appropriate notification. Or, if they haven't been cured already, they are certainly problems that we will address forthrightly. But it won't take us long because they only mentioned about half a dozen programs out of 5,000.

Second, just let me point out one other thing. There was conflicting guidance--or certainly different interpretations--between the House and the Senate in one case I believe involving the MEADS, and there may have been some confusion on that. We have talked about this with the committee and will continue to talk about it with the committee.

Q: Is there a larger problem here? Secretary Cohen mentioned this morning that normally these things are worked out with a phone call. You mentioned that the Pentagon was blind-sided by the vote on the F-22. Has there been a breakdown in the relations between the Pentagon, the Administration and Congress on these defense issues? And wasn't that something that Secretary Cohen, because of his congressional experience, was supposed to kind of help mend relations or keep relations with Congress going?

Mr. Bacon: I think by any measure relations between the Pentagon and Congress have been basically very sound. Certainly the most fundamental measure is that Congress year in and year out funds the bulk of our requests and in recent years has actually been increasing the amount of money that we have received, increasing it above what we've requested. But if you go back and look at the alacrity with which Congress voted the supplemental money to fund Operation ALLIED FORCE--if you look at the way they voted to approve supplementals to cover other contingency operations that we've had over the last couple of years--I'd say that shows that there is a very good, solid working relationship between Congress and the Administration.

Q: That was then and this is now. Suddenly, just suddenly, it looks like things are more contentious.

Mr. Bacon: We deal with four major committees -- two in the House and two in the Senate -- every year on a variety of issues. This is one committee. It's an important committee, of course. We share a common purpose which is to make and keep America's defenses the best in the world. We're completely unified in that requirement, and we will continue to work together to make sure that our armed forces do remain the best, the most agile, the most powerful armed forces in the world.

Q: Back to the F-22 for a second.

Mr. Bacon: Sure.

Q: Let's say Congress decides to ax the program. Wouldn't the Super Hornet and later the Joint Strike Fighter provide America with air dominance well into the next century?

Mr. Bacon: If you go back and you look at the length of time it takes to devise a program, and if you look at the amount of time that planes remain in operation, could we skate by for a year or two? Sure, we could do that. But we're talking about what's going to happen in a decade, two or three decades from now. You don't know what the threat's going to be. All we know if...

Q:...skate by for a year or two?

Mr. Bacon: I think that it is the job of the leaders of this Department, whether they be civilian or military, to look out 20 or 30 years into the future and say what actions could I take today to make sure that our military will be dominant, will be able to satisfy and protect the national interests 20 or 30 years from now? That's what the F-22 is. That's what it represents.

You can go back and look at airplane development over the last decades. Look at the C-17, now regarded by everybody as a huge success. The last story I wrote when I covered the Pentagon in 1980 for the Wall Street Journal was about whether the C-17 would be approved, whether it would ever be built because there was so much criticism both of its lack of ability and its high cost. Now we consider it indispensable to our operations.

The B-2, obviously the focus of enormous debate for a number of reasons -- cost, capability, need over the last couple of decades--have proved to be a decisive weapon in Operation ALLIED FORCE because it could deliver ordnance that no other aircraft could in conditions that no other aircraft could deliver that ordnance. It could deliver the highly precise JDAM in all weather. No other plane could do that.

So we make investments in the best technology we see at the time, and then we nurse that along, we improve it, we train our pilots. It takes a long while to train a generation of pilots to fly planes at the very peak of their ability.

One of the reasons our Air Force is so good is because we have a good marriage between pilots and planes--because they know these planes, they've worked in them, they spend a lot of time in them. They've worked in them over generations. That's what you give up if you don't start now developing the technology of the future.

Q: One last thing on the threat. You mentioned the Russians working on the SU-35. What's the status on that?

Mr. Bacon: I'm afraid I'll have to get you more details on it.

Q: They can't pay their own troops and they can't build APCs to send to Kosovo. Does anyone think that they're going to build the next generation fighter?

Mr. Bacon: As I said, complacency is the enemy of military dominance. You can't assume that just because conditions look entirely favorable today that they're going to be that way in 15 or 30 years. And technology is such that if you suddenly decide somebody's catching up on you very fast in say 15 years from now, we can't create immediately a very complex program and get it into production and get people trained and up and flying on it. It takes time.