Part of what made the "Blair Witch Project" so scary was that moviegoers never saw whatever was stalking those kids through the woods. Lately, Washington and the Pentagon have been using the same technique to raise blood pressure over the military's plan to buy new warplanes.
While budget fights focus on the $62.7 billion F-22 fighter program, the unseen bugaboo making everyone nervous is another jet: the Joint Strike Fighter.
Generals warn that terrible things will happen to the Joint Strike Fighter if the nation doesn't also build the F-22. Congressional budget cutters say the Joint Strike Fighter is exactly why we don't need to buy the F-22.
Both sides can use the same project for opposite ends because the Joint Strike Fighter, like the Blair Witch, only exists in people's minds. No real plane has been built yet.
"You put a name on something that has no substance behind it, and all of a sudden it becomes everyone's Holy Grail," said Richard Aboulafia, aircraft expert for the Teal Group.
The concept of the Joint Strike Fighter is broad, because the plane has to serve three agendas. One version of the plane is supposed to be a cheap, versatile fighter for the Air Force; a heavier version will operate from carriers for the Navy, and a third model has to hover and land vertically for the Marines.
The British Royal Navy also wants to buy a few. With a projected total order of about 3,000 planes, the contract to build the Joint Strike Fighter could easily top $250 billion and stand as the biggest Pentagon deal in history.
So this amorphous program, which was a mere research project as recently as four years ago, is a potent factor in the suddenly hot debate about the fate of its more developed sister plane, the F-22.
When the House of Representatives voted in July to deny $1.8 billion for buying the next six F-22s, it left $1.2 billion in the budget for continuing to develop the Lockheed Martin plane. But the House Appropriations Committee stuck a monster caveat on that money, instructing the Air Force to convert the F-22 into nothing more than "an affordable demonstration program" to help in designing the Joint Strike Fighter.
Then Congress went into recess for a month and gets back to work today. The fate of the F-22 was left hanging as the single most contentious defense topic that will face House and Senate budget conferees. Senators had approved full funding for the plane.
The Air Force has scrambled to resurrect the F-22, and it used political judo to flip the Joint Strike Fighter right back at Congress.
The tactic involved three basic arguments that each contain a healthy dose of spin:
Eliminating the F-22 would make the Air Force completely re-evaluate the role of the Joint Strike Fighter.
The F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter are planned to have the same relationship as today's F-15 and F-16 fighter planes. Called a "high-low mix," the idea is for one plane to be a big, powerful air-to-air dogfighter that can wipe out an enemy air force in the first days of a conflict. The F-15 is designed to do that now, and the F-22 is supposed to do it after 2004.
Once the skies are safe and "air dominance" is assured, waves of smaller, more versatile fighters swarm in -- shooting down remaining enemy planes as well as bombing targets on the ground and providing cover for foot soldiers. That would be the F-16 today and the Joint Strike Fighter after 2010.
High-end mission shifted
If the F-22 were canceled, the high-end mission would fall to updated F-15s or simply to the Joint Strike Fighter itself. Generals argue that new European planes are going to be better than the F-15, though upgrades could make up the difference.
The Joint Strike Fighter is not currently designed to be the nation's top dogfighter. It lacks the raw power of the F-22, largely because the Joint Strike Fighter has only one engine, while the F-22 has two.
Besides reducing muscle for maneuvers, the smaller power plant means the Joint Strike Fighter might be unable to run the full suite of electronics planned for the F-22.
But some military experts say those details are beside the point. The post-Cold War world holds no giant foreign air forces, and recent conflicts have not involved significant air-to-air battles, so the traditional high-low mix of planes may be outmoded.
That's why some in Congress say re-evaluating missions is exactly what the Air Force needs to do.
Generals warn that changing the role of the Joint Strike Fighter would lard on technology and drive up cost.
In truth, if the F-22 really does go down in flames in Congress, "There would be no impact on the Joint Strike Fighter today," said Frank Statkus, the program manager for Boeing's version of the new plane.
The long-term impact is unclear.
Asking a warplane to do more almost always means making it cost more. If the Joint Strike Fighter has to be able to fly farther on a tank of gas, for instance, it will have to have a bigger gas tank, which makes it weigh more. Other parts of the design will have to change to accommodate the greater weight and maintain speed and maneuverability, so the price goes up.
But Statkus said that an intelligent design leaves room for such changes without blowing out the cost.
"In the end," he said, "you could change the requirements far enough that you would have a change in cost." But then the builder and the Air Force could weigh priorities and look for trade-offs to balance the increase.
Which points out another truth about the Joint Strike Fighter: the program is so young that the design is constantly changing anyway. The two demonstrator planes that Boeing is locked into building no longer look like the updated design the company would build if it won the contract.
The Joint Strike Fighter is dependent on the F-22 for new technology, the Air Force says, so canceling the F-22 would transfer development costs to the newer plane. The strike fighter does benefit from the 15 years and $20 billion already spent developing the F-22, but most of that benefit has already been realized. The companies regard the Joint Strike Fighter as the true technological trailblazer.
Asked how dependent his program is on F-22 technology, Statkus said, "Not very . From that technology, we've kind of stepped off in how you develop a next-generation aircraft. That next generation is JSF."
At Lockheed Martin's fighter factory in Fort Worth, Texas, most of the new technology effort is aimed at the Joint Strike Fighter.
The test lab at the plant is experimenting with forming airplane parts by building them up out of metallic particles instead of carving them out of solid blocks of metal, to reduce waste.
Another innovation is a computer design program that can simulate maintenance workers of various sizes and have them repair a "virtual" plane. If it turns out that a 6-foot man cannot possibly reach a wing nut inside the weapons bay, engineers can alter the plane's design with a few key strokes.
Officials there hope to use those and other new techniques to reduce cost on the F-22, but the methods are being developed for the Joint Strike Fighter, which is seen as the future of the plant.
"If you're going to be in the fighter business for the future, JSF has got to be part of that," Fort Worth plant president Dain Hancock once said in an interview. "If not, you're probably not going to be in the fighter business."
The fact that so much rides on the Joint Strike Fighter leaves the Air Force in an awkward position when it comes to defending the F-22, which has been its top new weapon priority for at least a decade. Overselling the Joint Strike Fighter bolsters the congressional argument that the F-22 is an unnecessary luxury.
In that case, one expert said, the Joint Strike Fighter's ambiguity is its strongest feature.
"The aspirations out there are all over the field . That's the beauty of the plane," said Bert Cooper, a military aircraft expert with the Congressional Research Service. "It can be all things to all people, because it's not going to happen anytime soon."