Lockheed Martin’s Own Private Arms Race

If maintaining air superiority in the world is a priority for the US, then selling our most capable fighter planes abroad is not. Congress should stop allowing defense contractors to arm our enemies, and force us to spend billions of tax dollars to catch up.

Image: Pratt & Whitney


While Lockheed Martin and Pentagon officials are lobbying hard to have funds restored to the F-22 program, our congressional leaders should be applauded for taking the first step in cutting $1.8 billion from the program. But now Congress needs to go a step further by asking whether the U.S. needs the F-22 at all. Along with the F-22, the Pentagon is simultaneously funding two other advanced fighter programs: the Joint Strike Fighter, which Lockheed Martin and Boeing are competing for; and the Boeing F/A-18E/F. The three programs combined are expected to cost the U.S. taxpayers more than $340 billion.

The $67 billion F-22 project — described as a “billion-dollar cancer eating a hole in the Air Force,” by Rep. Obey (D-WI) — has been fraught with problems since the project was initiated in 1991. The Air Force has repeatedly and purposely underestimated the costs for the F-22 while minimizing the problems and skirting testing requirements. John Isaacs of the Council for a Liveable World notes that the F-22 program is not following the “fly before you buy” policy with “the Air Force requesting to begin production even though the test planes have flown only about 200 of the 4,337 hours of scheduled flight tests.” In addition, the U.S. no longer faces a superpower adversary like the Soviet Union with comparable fighter capabilities.

With the Cold War rationale for the F-22 in tatters, Lockheed has erected the scourge of “Foreign Countries With Advanced Fighter Aircraft.” In its promotional literature for the $200 million-per-copy F-22, Lockheed encloses a map showing the nations which possess advanced fighter planes: Of the 48 “dangerous” nations listed, 24 of them obtained their advanced fighter capability from none other than the United States in the form of Lockheed F-16s and Boeing/McDonnell Douglas F-15s and F-18s.

With domestic sales of fighters well below their Cold War peak for most of this decade, defense contractors have been seeking out new buyers in a discerning and demanding world market. Lockheed Martin’s recent $8 billion deal to supply the United Arab Emirates with 80 F-16s includes an unprecedented pledge to transfer the planes software source codes — vital data that will allow the U.A.E. to upgrade the aircraft attack capabilities at will. No other nation has been given the software source codes and for good reason. As one U.S. Navy officer said, “As a war fighter, I don’t want to face this stuff.” But he may have to: In past conflicts ranging from Panama to the Gulf War US soldiers had to face forces armed with US-supplied weaponry.

If the US goes through with the transfer of the software source codes it will greatly enhance the plane’s radar, increasing its targeting capabilities far beyond what other countries in the region possess. The source codes would give the U.A.E. the ability to jam radar frequencies on US fighter planes. Also, the transfer of the software to third parties is easy and impossible to track. And to top it off, even without the source codes the U.A.E.’s version of the F-16 is more powerful, agile and deadlier than our own fighters, outfitted with equipment not expected to enter the US arsenal for another 5 years. In response, Israel is purchasing 50 Lockheed F-16s in the hope of maintaining the balance of power in the Middle East.

Beyond spurring arms races in various regions around the world, the export of advanced fighter planes and military technology by the US has spurred a virtual arms race with ourselves, in which the development of the next generation of fighters is justified in large part by the fact that many other nations are now being given or sold our most current fighter technology. With this in mind, how can we be certain Lockheed Martin won’t ratchet up the international arms race one notch higher by marketing its new and improved F-22 overseas? Already James Blackwell, president of Lockheed Martin’s aeronautics sector, admitted that “there have been allies [that] have been briefed.” While Lockheed Martin has the incentive to place narrow economic gains ahead of long term security interests, should our Congress be doing the same? The time is now for Congress to reexamine our arms-export policy to ensure that if maintaining air superiority in the world is a priority for the US, then selling our most capable fighter planes abroad is not. Controlling US fighter exports would help eliminate any possible need for the F-22, saving US taxpayers tens of billions of dollars in the process.

Frida Berrigan and Michelle Ciarrocca are Research Associates at the World Policy Institute at the New School University in New York.

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