Cutbacks may deck Navy plane Production of FA-18 could drop 45% off initial projections; Report comes Monday; Cardin sees clash over Pentagon's spending priorities


WASHINGTON -- The Navy could wind up buying a little more than half the number of Super Hornet fighter planes it has been asking for under one scenario in the sweeping military review that began making the rounds of Congress yesterday.

The McDonnell Douglas FA-18 E/F Super Hornet could be the biggest loser among the three expensive jet fighter programs at the heart of the hardware portion of the Quadrennial Defense Review. The Navy has talked about buying 1,000 of the planes, but sources said the QDR will recommend a range of purchases that could dip to as low as 550.

If it buys that few, though, the Navy would buy more Joint Strike Fighter warplanes, the sources said. That would fuel critics' claims that the military has avoided any serious cuts that could upset defense contractors.

U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin said yesterday that while he has not seen the specifics of the QDR -- a menu of Pentagon priorities that will be officially released on Monday -- he does not like what he sees as an overall emphasis on hardware over troops.

"I think you're going to find that Congress will strike a better balance between equipment and personnel," the Baltimore-area Democrat said. "The procurement side will not do as well as the review recommendations."

But the Pentagon's purchasing chief, Undersecretary of Defense Paul G. Kaminski, said in an interview that while authorities considered scrapping any one of the Super Hornet, Joint Strike Fighter or F-22 Raptor programs, there was no reason to do so.

"I don't know why we'd be doing that other than to claim victory and say we canceled a program," he said.

Kaminski, who is leaving office today but who was intimately involved with the QDR process, offered the first blow-by-blow explanation of the rationale behind preserving three jet fighter programs with a total value of about $300 billion -- more than an entire annual defense budget.

The QDR recommends cutting the Air Force F-22 from 438 planes to 339, but those cuts come later in the production cycle and could always be reversed. Kaminski said there is a fundamental need for such a technologically advanced warplane replace the F-15, which made its debut in the mid-1970s.

"I would not be comfortable relying on the F-15 for another 15 years," he said.

Kaminski conceded that there is no current foreign threat to match up against the F-22. But he added that threats could develop "in such a way that we would plan to buy more than we now plan. Or we could see peace break out on a broader scale and buy considerably less. What we've done in this program is give ourselves the option."

As for the Super Hornet, Kaminski noted that some critics have faulted it for not being a significant improvement over current models of the plane. "I guess I disagree with that in the end," he said.

While not as big a technological leap forward as the F-22, he said, the Super Hornet offers a 50 percent improvement in range and payload capability over the current Hornet fighter plane.

What's more, the Hornet has no room for new and more sophisticated electronic gear. "I couldn't be comfortable with that kind of a posture for a 15-year period," Kaminski said.

The Joint Strike Fighter, finally, is a low-cost, multirole warplane that Kaminski said is virtually indispensable. The QDR is likely to recommend slight cuts in the program -- the Air Force could buy 1,700 instead of 2,000, for instance -- but the plane is in its developmental infancy, so the numbers mean less than the fact that it survived the review process.

"If we canceled the Joint Strike Fighter program and you asked me what would I do next, in all honesty I would tell you I would start [another] Joint Strike Fighter program," he said.

The "evidence is overwhelming," Kaminski said, that the nation needs a big fleet of "low-end" warplanes like the Joint Strike Fighter to keep up U.S. presence around the world.

He said he also likes the notion of fostering competition between the Joint Strike Fighter and the Super Hornet, which will overlap in production in another 10 years or so.

A spokesman for McDonnell Douglas said recently that his company is still aiming for a potential Navy purchase of 1,000 Super Hornets.

But the math on that purchase has never been simple. It started out as a package of about 660 for the Navy and 340 for the Marines. The Marines, though, said some time ago that they didn't want the plane, preferring a possible vertical takeoff version of the Joint Strike Fighter.

Even so, the Navy stood by the 1,000 figure.

The QDR will recommend a range of possible Super Hornet buys that depend upon how many Joint Strike Fighters the Navy eventually purchases.

The range goes from a high of about 785 Super Hornets to a low of roughly 550, sources said. The low-end number would include buying more Joint Strike Fighters -- 480 instead of the 300 now planned for the Navy.

A defense official familiar with the QDR said yesterday that even at the low end of the range, the review reaffirms faith in the Super Hornet, which is undergoing a three-year testing program at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

"It's obvious that the Super Hornet has the support to be the premier tactical aircraft into the next century," the official said.

Pub Date: 5/16/97

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