War-Toy Wishes

Article excerpt

Byline: John Barry

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. …