One of the few cogently defined issues separating the Presidential candidates in the 2012 election is national defense, specifically the defense budget. Governor Romney’s plan envisions a defense budget of around 4% of GDP, while President Obama would like to see funding reduced as the U.S. withdraws from the war in Afghanistan and the military transitions to peacetime operations. Although the exact difference between the two plans is difficult to ascertain, most authorities are in consensus that the gap would be measured in hundreds of billions of dollars. According to Bloomberg.com, some of the key programs that would be funded by the additional outlays include the Army’s Stryker armored vehicles, the Navy’s Aegis destroyer and Virginia class submarine, and the Air Force’s Reaper drones and its newest 5th generation fighter jet the F-35.
Currently the F-35 is still in development with 60 of the fighters built and currently employed for training applications, but the F-35 isn’t the only 5th generation fighter jet in the U.S. arsenal. The F-22 employed by the Air Force is the most advanced operational fighter jet in the world and the fleet of over 180 of these fighters has been in service in the American military since 2005. The F-22 simply outclasses the competition due to its hegemony over the skies as the only 5th generation fighter jet in the world currently employed. Thanks to a federal law banning its export, the United States has the only military with this class of fighter, but that monopoly won’t last forever.
Russia and China are developing their own 5th generation fighters; however, they are estimated to be a long way from becoming fully operational, let alone achieving numerical parity with the U.S. Fleet. The Russian PAK FA/T-50 fighter is scheduled for introduction in 2015/2016 and currently their developmental fleet is estimated at 5 aircraft. Less information is available about the Chinese J-series fighter which is further behind in its development, but it is expected to be introduced in 2018. The global economic conditions will likely impact both competing development programs resulting in delays, at a minimum. The considerable cost of these programs and the unit cost of production of these fighters will seriously impede either nation from matching American supremacy of 5th generation fighters for many more years beyond their anticipated introduction dates.
Assuming that the existing U.S. arsenal does not expand by a single fighter, how long would it take for the Chinese or the Russians to match the American fleet of F-22’s? The per-unit cost of the Russian PAK FA/T-50 is estimated at around $50 million. Aggregate Russian spending on national defense is much more difficult to project, however, estimates from globalsecurity.org give a ballpark figure of around $50 billion annually. Based on these figures, the Russian Government would have to devote 20% of its annual defense budget in order to produce a fleet of 200 aircraft, an absurd reallocation of funding that would that impose major constraints upon the rates of production. The outlook for the Chinese J series fighter is even less threatening with analysis from globalsecurity.org concluding that “The J-31 might achieve an initial operational capability in the 2025 timeframe.”
Given the dire fiscal outlook of the federal budget and uncertain threats from competing national efforts in developing 5th generation fighters, the F-35 program along with defense spending in general will be difficult for Americans to stomach should Romney be elected and will likely be an easy target for cuts if President Obama is reelected.