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Commentary: Aircraft carriers in need of aircraft

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 20, 2010 - It has been said that when word of a crisis breaks out, the first question that comes to mind is, "Where's the nearest carrier?" The aircraft carrier, 90,000 tons of sovereign U.S. territory, able to project power across the globe at a moment's notice, is perhaps America's most enduring symbol of peace through strength. Its credibility as a striking force, however, is contingent on one small detail: Aircraft to go with it.

In recent weeks, we've heard a great deal about the myriad delays and cost overruns of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Recently, the secretary of the Air Force informed the House and Senate Armed Services Committees that the per-unit cost of the Joint Strike Fighter has grown by more than 50 percent from the original baseline cost estimate. Furthermore, substantial delays in aircraft tests have forced the Department of Defense to reduce the rate at which it plans to introduce the JSF into the service's inventory.

Meanwhile, the Department of the Navy's existing fleet of F/A-18s continues to fatigue under an arduous operational tempo, one that is aging our fighter fleet beyond the original design limitation of the aircraft. The necessary retirement of our older F/A-18s combined with the simultaneous delay of the JSF portends a scenario where, for a period of time, we may potentially lack the requisite number of aircraft to support ongoing operations; a scenario often referred to as the "Strike Fighter Gap." In more practical terms, one might refer to this as aircraft carriers without aircraft.

The Department of Defense has many competing priorities, including but certainly not limited to tactical aviation. We are seeing alarming force structure levels and increased demand on our manpower and equipment across the board. Although we may differ in terms of our recommendations for balancing DoD's investment against those many priorities, we should at least be able to come to an agreement on the shortfalls and risks we are assuming as a result of our investment decisions.

Sadly, to date, the Department of Defense has been unable to articulate the shortfall that it faces in Navy and Marine Corps strike fighters, let alone tactical aviation across the services. In fact, since March 2008 I have received seven conflicting estimates of what the shortfall may actually be, ranging from more than 300 to "only" 100 aircraft. Without consensus within DoD on the situation, we can hardly hope for a shared definition of the problem between the executive and legislative branches of government.

Some change to these estimates should be expected, as changes are made to the Joint Strike Fighter program and other fact-of-life issues arise. But based on this track record, I think it is easy to see how we could become concerned that either the department does not have a handle on the viability of the strike fighter inventory, or the DoD is changing the data to mask a more serious problem.

In response to this uncertainty, Congress has provided tools to the Department of Defense to create affordable options to improve the strike fighter inventory. Among these is the authority to enter into a multiyear contract for F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers, that could save the taxpayers at least half a billion dollars. Moreover, as the Joint Strike Fighter becomes further delayed, a contract to purchase additional F/A-18 Super Hornets, beyond what has already been authorized through 2013, would not only result in further savings to taxpayers but would help to mitigate the impending fighter gap.

Unfortunately, DoD has yet to take advantage of these tools and time is running out. Instead, high-ranking members of the Department of Defense have supported a mitigation strategy that relies upon an unbudgeted yet costly, unproven and lengthy maintenance program that would extend the service life of older F/A-18s for a relatively short period in hopes that the JSF will be introduced without further delays. It is a strategy rooted not on sound, quantifiable data, but on uncertain hope and confidence in a system that has thus far proven ill worthy of it.

I am mystified by the continued reluctance of senior DoD leadership to honestly address this shortfall through an acquisition strategy that would at once mitigate an imminent deficit to our operational readiness, save substantial taxpayer dollars and maintain the employment of our industrial workforce and technical knowledge base for years to come.

As Congress rightfully considers both the ongoing wars as well as the potential for future conflicts, we must balance expected requirements with essential capabilities. The bottom line is this: Aircraft carriers work better with airplanes on them.

The Department of Defense should address America's security interests through a strategy predicated on realistic operational imperatives and fiscal responsibility that we may preserve, uninterrupted, the ability to project credible power in order to ensure enduring peace.

Todd Akin, R-Town & Country, is ranking member of the House Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over all Navy and Marine Corps procurement.