When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went to Chicago last summer to make the case for killing the F-22 -- the world's premier air supremacy fighter and the only "fifth generation fighter" currently in production anywhere -- he argued that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter would be a more cost-effectve alternative. Though the JSF "has had development problems to be sure," Gates said, "It is a versatile aircraft, less than half the total cost of the F-22, and can be produced in quantity with all the advantages produced by economies of scale – some 500 will be bought over the next five years."
Well, not long after Gates's speech -- and the administration's successful effort to kill the F-22 -- a Pentagon study was revealed showing that the JSF program had again fallen badly behind schedule. Rather than procuring 500 planes by the summer of 2014, as Gates had predicted, the Pentagon now expects to field just one operational squadron (or 12 planes!) of F-35s by 2014. The Air Force will not have its first squadron until 2016. And that is based on an assumption that there will be no further delays in the program -- an assumption that only a fool would make.
Gates was also wrong about the cost of the F-35. Current estimates show that some variants of the F-35 will cost as much as $113 million. That's significantly more than the per unit cost of an F-22, and Gates must have known this full well even when he gave that speech saying that the JSF wasn't coming in on budget at $50 million a copy.
But the oddest thing about Gates's speech last summer was his assertion that competitors to the United States, specifically China, would be unable to produce their own fifth-gen fighters any time soon. "Consider that by 2020, the United States is projected to have nearly 2,500 manned combat aircraft of all kinds," Gates said, while "China, by contrast, is projected to have no fifth generation aircraft by 2020."
Of course the Chinese are already working on a fifth-gen fighter. Whether they will be able to produce one in any significant quantity by 2020 seemed to be a legitimate point of debate. But here was Gates saying definitively that they would not be able to do so.
Well, one year later, Gates is now singing a very different tune. In his speech over the weekend, Gates asked, "Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?" Thus Gates concedes that the Chinese will indeed have a stealth fighter in a decade. Some new information on Chinese fighter development must have come to light.
We know now that Gates's estimate of U.S. procurement last summer was bogus. We will be nowhere near 2,500 fifth-gen aircraft (F-35s and F-22s) by 2020. And now Gates has conceded that China will, in fact, have produced a fifth-generation stealth fighter by 2020. How many will they have produced? How many will we have produced? We can only be sure of two things: Gates doesn't know, and he killed the F-22 based on a faulty assumption that the number of Chinese stealth fighters in 2020 would be zero.