Cohen on Airpower

Jan. 1, 2000

William S. Cohen, the Secretary of Defense, responded to questions at a Nov. 9, 1999, press conference in Dallas, prior to addressing the Dallas Council on World Affairs. He dealt with the subject of the need for the F-22 fighter and for the Pentagon’s broader fighter modernization program. Here are excerpts.

We Do Heavy Lifting

“We have just concluded the most successful air campaign in the history of the world. We did so based on technology that was developed back in the 1970s and even prior to that time. The reason that we need the F-22 as well as the Joint Strike Fighter is to give us the same kind of capability that we had to have in this war [in] Kosovo.

“In this situation you might take note that the United States had to carry out most of the heavy lifting during the first phase of the campaign because none of our allies had the capability that we had to go in with stealth aircraft, with precision guided munitions, to go after the air defense systems [and] the command-and-control systems in Kosovo.

“So we are depending upon technology that was developed over three decades ago to carry our forces today.”

Through a Glass Darkly

“When we talk about the need for the F-22, I don’t think anyone can tell you exactly how the world is going to unfold in 10 or 15 or 20 years from now. But the fact is if we don’t have the F-22, you will be calling upon our pilots to fly aircraft, during that time frame, roughly 30 or 35 years old.

“We don’t ever want to put our pilots in a situation where they have to fly against more and more sophisticated air defenses and against aircraft that are being developed by other countries-Russia, China, and others-that will pose a challenge to them. So we think it’s imperative that we go forward with the F-22.”

Pulling Out a Thread

“If you don’t have the F-22, you have to go back and recalculate exactly what you want the Joint Strike Fighter to do. The Joint Strike Fighter’s requirements were designed and based upon the fact that we would have an F-22 and a Joint Strike Fighter-the high end being the F-22, which would take the place of the F-15 and F-117, and the so-called low end would be the Joint Strike Fighter.

“So we need both, and if you were to ever cancel out the F-22, you would have to go back and redesign the Joint Strike Fighter-which pushes it well into the future, which means we’d be relying upon the F-16, F-14, other aircraft, and the F-15, well into the period of 2015, 2020. That’s not something we ever want to put our pilots in a position of doing. …

“We just completed the most successful air campaign in history-depending upon the kind of high-low mix that we’ve had developed back in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. We need to have that kind of a mix for the future.”

Cost of Three-Fighter Plan

“I went through this [cost analysis of DoD’s three-fighter modernization plan, comprising the F-22, JSF, and Navy F-18E/F] during the so-called Quadrennial Defense Review and made a determination at that time [1997] that we had the F-18E/F models coming off the lines as I was taking office, so it became important to keep that line going.

“I also needed to have the F-18E/F models as some leverage against the Joint Strike Fighter, which at that point was still basically on paper. I needed to have some leverage, so I cut the F-18E/F model purchase by half, and then said we will acquire roughly half as many as the current production schedule calls for, and then in the event the Joint Strike Fighter doesn’t come on line as called for, or there are delays or there’s some reason why I need more leverage, then I have the E/F model as some leverage to balance that out.

“In the mean time, the F-22 gives the Joint Strike Fighter the kind of [improved] capability also as far as the stealth is concerned.

“So we looked at this very closely and decided that we needed to have the high­low mix, and it was important for our pilots for the future to be able to take on either sophisticated air defense systems or air-to-air type of combat scenarios. We want to do so with the best that this country has to offer and not with something that is 30 or 35 years old.

“So as far as Tacair is concerned, in the wake of what took place in Kosovo, I would think we would have more support rather than less.”

F-15, F-117 Must Be Replaced

“The F-15-that is an aircraft, again, that needs to be replaced by the F-22. So that line is still open, but that’s the purpose of the F-22, to replace the F-15 and the F-117 stealth bomber. That gives you the kind of air superiority that you need as we move into the future.

“So all of that technology-I know it’s easy to say at this point, ‘Why do we need it?’ Well, we just saw why we needed it in Kosovo where many of our allies didn’t have the capability that we did. We had to carry the heavy load in the first part of the campaign. It evened out somewhat, quite a bit actually, towards the end of the campaign, where we carried about 53 percent of the airstrikes compared to 47 for the allies. But in the beginning phase of that campaign, we had to go in with our capability.”

For the Successor Generation

“There may be other cases in the future, and I certainly don’t want to be in a position to shortchange those pilots 10 and 12 years from now who will rely upon the decisions we make today, and I will address this this evening as well. Decisions-when Dick Cheney [Secretary of Defense, 1989-93] finished up his term in office, he pointed out that he would hope that decisions he would make would be as important to his successor as those that were made two or three decades prior to his service. And those decisions made back in the ’70s served him well during the Persian Gulf War and certainly in Panama as well.

“The decisions I make today in making recommendations to the Congress to fund will, I hope, serve my successors, because they will not come on line until 2008, 2015, during that period where we get all of the modernization in the Tacair. So I hope that the decisions I’m making will benefit my successors as well.”