The F-22A Raptor is the key to America’s air superiority, and we need more of them. Recently, however, some have argued otherwise. Many of the dissenters suggest that Congress is considering continuing F-22 production for simple, political reasons. I respectfully disagree.
Continuing the F-22 production is not a political nicety for the Air Force or for the defense of our nation. It is a necessity and the current program of record - 183 Raptors - is woefully inadequate to fulfill the National Military Strategy. This means that after accounting for test and training aircraft, and aircraft in maintenance, only about 100 Raptors would be immediately available for combat. Remember that numbers do matter, given that the F-22 will replace the original force of some 800 F-15 A-D Eagles.
Every campaign analysis study shows the need for significantly more than 183 F-22s. In fact, the Air Force Sustaining Air Dominance study concluded that 381 F-22s is the “sweet spot” for a balanced fleet of fifth generation and legacy fighter aircraft required to support Air Force mission requirements. Even if the Air Force procures all 381 F-22s, it would still require a “Golden Eagle” fleet of 177 F-15C/Ds to supplement the Raptor fleet and fill the fighter inventory through 2025.
It has also been suggested that the F-35 could act as the “affordable” fifth generation fighter. While the F-35 will complement the F-22, it cannot replace it in the air-to-air superiority mission.
Some critics believe that legacy fighters that are largely more than 25 years old, such as the F-15 and F-16, can be sufficiently upgraded and that will be good enough. They believe that in a cost-constrained environment, continued procurement of the F-22 would be a waste of taxpayer dollars. Unfortunately, the reality is that these legacy fighters are vulnerable to current and future threats, including those posed by Russian and Chinese advanced surface-to-air missiles such as the S-400 / S-500, HQ-9, SA-20, and proposed 5th generation fighters like the T-50 and XX-J, which are not hypothetical by any stretch of the imagination.
The fact is that the F-22 is exceeding the Air Force’s operational expectations everywhere - from Red Flags and Northern Edges to Air Expeditionary Force deployments. Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap Jr., speaking to Jane’s Cityforum Washington Conference, points out: “We must do more than just assess the likelihood of conflict occurring at a particular point on the spectrum; we must also calculate the magnitude of the potential loss.” While we must continue to plan and equip for the conflicts in which we are currently engaged and those we can reasonably expect, Maj. Gen. Dunlap makes the case that it is absolutely imperative that we have the conventional (non-nuclear) means to deter and defeat the existential threat the enemy that would have the ability to end the “existence of the United States as anything we would recognize … The magnitude of the potential loss is just too great to make national security decisions based simply on the expected frequency of conflicts where the stakes are not as great.”
We don’t have the ability to accurately predict the global political and military scene that will face us a generation from now. The F-22 is an utterly essential component in assuring we maintain our asymmetrical advantage well into the future: “The F-22 is the finest [air superiority] fighter in the world. It is by far better than anything else that is out there and better than anything on anyone else’s drawing boards. We’re very lucky,” says Lt. Col. Michael Hernandez, an F-22 pilot.
One need not look further than the current conflict between Russia and Georgia to see that future potential conventional military threats are very real. It is our responsibility as a nation to ensure that the military we procure today will be a force available and ready to defend America and our interests for the next three decades. We simply must do all that we can to have our troops prepared to defend our freedom with the best possible equipment in order to shorten wars and save lives.
In recognition of this, the House Armed Services Committee acted appropriately by providing funds for advance procurement to continue the F-22 beyond the program of record. Despite this, decisions made in the coming weeks during Senate consideration of the fiscal 2009 National Defense Authorization Act - and during conference negotiations with the House - could ultimately determine the fate of the program.
Americans - and the Russians and Chinese - will be watching.
Rep. Phil Gingrey, Georgia Republican, is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.