San Antonio Express-News

Now that the cash-strapped Pentagon has announced plans to cancel much of the F-22 fighter program, it should take the opportunity to kill another gold-plated albatross: the V-22, the tilt-rotor aircraft built by Bell Helicopter and Boeing.

Yes, both of these aircraft are built in Texas. But that should not be a consideration for people who genuinely care about America’s military and the safety of American soldiers. The simple truth is that both the F-22 and V-22 are too expensive and too finicky to be useful to American soldiers in Iraq or anywhere else.

The histories of the F-22 and V-22 programs are remarkably similar: Each aircraft was begun during the Cold War, and both have been typified by extravagant cost increases and safety questions

Cost issues are the most important, particularly with the war in Iraq costing American taxpayers some $1.2 billion per week. When it was first proposed two decades ago, the F-22 — built by Lockheed Martin — was supposed to cost $35 million each. Today, the airplane costs $258 million per copy. The Pentagon already has spent nearly $40 billion on the radar-evading aircraft.

But few war planners are able (or willing) to explain exactly how a radar-evading airplane will help America defeat an enemy such as al-Qaida, which doesn’t have radar. Heck, a lot of their fighters don’t even have electricity.

The cost of the F-22 is particularly high when compared with that of the F-16, the workhorse fighter of the U.S. military. Although the F-16 has been in service for about two decades, it is still reliable and safe. It has never been defeated in air-to-air combat, and it is in use by 20 different countries around the world. The cost for a brand-new F-16: about $50 million. Better still, it’s built in Fort Worth.

The V-22, when it was first approved in the late ’80s, was supposed to cost $36 million per copy. Today, the tab for each aircraft is $150 million. To date, taxpayers have spent some $16 billion on the V-22, and the aircraft is unlikely to be put into service until 2007, at the earliest.

The V-22 could easily be replaced — at far lower cost — by standard helicopters. The S-92, made by Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., and the larger US101, made by AgustaWestland, could both fulfill the mission of the V-22 and do so at a fraction of the cost.

The first news of plans to cut the size of the F-22 program came in December, less than two weeks after one of the airplanes lost control and slammed into the ground at Nellis AFB in Nevada. The pilot ejected safely. But the cause of the crash is still being investigated. Critics of the plane contend that its unusual radar-evading shape makes it inherently unstable.

The F-22’s safety record is far better than that of the V-22. But the same could also be said of almost every other aircraft ever built. About four dozen copies of the V-22 have been produced. Of that number, four V-22s and one prototype have crashed. Those accidents have killed 26 Marines and four civilians.

The aircraft’s safety record is so bad that Pentagon spokesmen refuse to provide comprehensive accident statistics on the machine.

The latest mishap with the V-22 occurred Nov. 19. While undergoing testing off the coast of eastern Canada, a 20-inch-long piece of rotor blade sheered off one of the aircraft. Even under a best-case scenario, the V-22 won’t be ready for prime time before 2007, if then.

Killing these aircraft will be difficult — particularly in a Congress corrupted by pork barrel projects disguised as defense spending. Indeed, one of the most astounding statistics about the F-22 is this: The airplane is built by 1,000 subcontractors — and those companies are spread among 43 states.

By coincidence, that’s exactly the same number of states that contain companies doing work on the V-22. That’s not a coincidence: The companies that build these aircraft have done all they can to protect them.

Yes, Dallas and Fort Worth would be hit hard by the reductions in the F-22 program and by the cancellation of the V-22. Thousands of jobs in the Metroplex rely on the two programs.

But neither of these aircraft will help the United States win the war in Iraq or help in the fight against Islamic fundamentalism. What Texas sacrifices in jobs will benefit American troops overseas. Surely that’s a swap worth making.


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