From Barbara Starr, CNN
Washington (CNN) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s top priority right now is to cut Pentagon spending. So more than a third of a trillion dollars in new fighter jets could be first on the list.
The $384 billion earmarked for some 3,000 F-35 stealth fighter jets is the most expensive weapons program ever, the Pentagon says. The plane is not yet in development. Testing is to resume after electrical problems forced it to be grounded recently.
Problems with its predecessor are making critics look harder at the F-35 – the fleet of nearly 200 F-22 fighters that cost $140 million each has been grounded since after oxygen to the pilot kept cutting off, killing one pilot.
And with the Pentagon under orders to trim its budget, “The question is are you really getting the kind of combat capability that justifies that cost?” asks Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The F-22, which went into service at the end of 2005, has never been in combat. And the F-35, which is still in development, might go the same way. Both planes have serious limitations.
"These aircraft are relatively short-range, which means they have to be based fairly close to the area of conflict.,” Kreprinevich says. “Well, what we've seen in recent years is countries like China, countries like Iran building ballistic missile forces than can easily target the forward air bases."
Winslow Wheeler, a Pentagon spending critic. says the planes are too expensive and not stealthy enough.
Against some radars, it's detectable as soon as it comes over the radar horizon and some of the radars that are best at doing that are quite antiquated technology from the [former Soviet Union],” Wheeler said.
And cost overruns make them a primary target to some in Congress.
"We cannot afford aircraft that double and triple the original estimated costs," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, told Panetta during his confirmation hearing.
“I think we have to watch it very carefully,” Panetta responded.
Both China and Russia are developing stealth fighter jets to counter the F-22.
Russia’s Sukhoi T-50, developed collaboratively by Russia and India, appeared at the MAKS 2011 air show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, according to state-run news source RIA Novosti.
Gen. Alexander Zelin, head of the Russian air force, told RIA Novosti he expects the T-50 prototype to be ready in 2013, with "mass-produced aircraft" arriving in 2014 or 2015.
And China’s J-20 stealth fighter made its second test flight in April, according to a report from the government-owned newspaper Global Times.
Chinese officials have said they expect the J-20 to be operational between 2017 and 2019.