The Air Force's War-Toy Wish

Photos: The weirdest, coolest hardware in the American arsenal Courtesy Tech Sgt. Ben Blocker / United States Air Force

As Lockheed Martin’s Marietta, Ga., plant prepares to begin building the 187th—and last—F-22 super-fighter, the military is already dreaming of its successor. In a query to the aerospace industry earlier this month, the Air Force laid out its wish list, and it wants everything: a plane that can win dogfights, demolish air-defense missile networks, support ground troops, and run surveillance missions; a partial prototype would be ready by 2020, with entry into service by 2030.

This may be wishful thinking, given the saga of the current wondercraft, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. With a development and production price tag of more than $380 billion, the F-35 is the costliest acquisition program in Pentagon history. Different versions are being developed for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. But the plane is bedeviled by technical problems, ever-rising costs, and slipping schedules, with the Marines’ incarnation presenting the toughest challenges. Last week the co-chairmen of President Obama’s deficit-reduction commission proposed gutting the program. On Nov. 22, a Pentagon review board is scheduled to take a hard look at it.

Speculation inside the services is that Defense Secretary Robert Gates may agree with the co-chairs. Gates wants, he has said, “greater quantities of systems that represent the 75 percent solution, instead of smaller quantities of 99 percent-exquisite systems.” A congressional air-power expert, who couldn’t be named because of Hill rules, says, “Over the past couple of weeks, the Air Force has begun to look seriously at the latest F-16s,” cheaper stopgaps if Gates slashes the F-35 buy. A senior Pentagon official, who declined to be identified talking about defense spending priorities, cautioned against expecting cuts: “Is the [Marine] version under some pressure in tight budget times? Yes. Does [it] have to be seriously reviewed? Yes. But there is no suggestion of backing away from the F-35.” Asked about the Nov. 22 meeting, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says, “I’m not in a position to help because all this stuff is under review.” (The Marines didn’t respond to a request for comment. The Air Force referred questions to the Pentagon.)

Even if the F-35 survives, the Air Force’s dreams of a next-generation super-fighter are likely to remain just that. Priorities for future budgets are a new family of bombers and a new tanker fleet. And when next-generation super-fighters do arrive, odds are they won’t resemble either the F-22 or the F-35. They’ll probably be drones—“large numbers of increasingly capable UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]…[with] the ability todisrupt and overwhelm,” as Gates told an Air Force gathering last year.