- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Senate recently voted 58-40 to halt further production of the fifth-generation stealth aircraft, the F-22 Raptor, a decision that divides the defense community. The cap, later endorsed by the House, will stop production at 187 Raptors.

Efforts to stop production have been bipartisan and even have emanated from traditional defense hawks, including Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.

The most consistent complaint is that the aircraft is far too costly, particularly when the federal government is strapped for cash. The cost is estimated to be more than $200 million per unit, a hefty price tag for a single piece of equipment.

Experts consider the F-22 the world’s most advanced fighter jet. The F-22 program began in the 1980s as the U.S. sought the most effective means of combating Soviet air power during the Cold War.

In an article in the February issue of Foreign Affairs, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wrote about the future of the U.S. military and the need for, as the article’s headline says, “A Balanced Strategy.” The article outlines an approach that would retool the military to focus on small wars and insurgencies. Mr. Gates announced his plans regarding the Raptor in April with the full support of President Obama, who vowed to veto any measure that would fund the F-22.

Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, said in a statement: “The Senate’s passage of this amendment is a victory for the Armed Forces and American taxpayers. Now defense dollars can be freed up to address real world threats and fill gaps in our defense capabilities. I applaud [supporters of the amendment] and the administration for their leadership on this effort to help ensure that we are spending our defense dollars wisely.” Mr. Feingold co-sponsored the Senate amendment with Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat.

Citizens Against Government Waste President Thomas A. Schatz has come out strongly against the F-22.

“F-22 at its current numbers can be complemented by F-15s, 16s and 18s and still achieve the same desired results,” Mr. Schatz told The Washington Times.

Opponents of the aircraft also have pointed out that the F-22 has not been used in a combat scenario in Iraq and Afghanistan - and likely will not be. The United States has cheaper aircraft that easily can assume the same role, they say. The only useful missions the F-22 could carry out would be over the skies of a peer nation.

Dozens of defense contractors and thousands of workers hold a stake in the F-22 project; those supply lines will dry up quickly once cancellation becomes official. If the aircraft is discontinued, that would make restarting the program exceedingly difficult. The primary contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp., addressed the program’s uncertain future thus: “We will support the U.S. Government’s final decision on the F-22 Program.”

The heir apparent to the Raptor, the F-35 Lightning II, is estimated to cost significantly less than the Raptor, about $83 million, according to Air Force budget estimates. However, the Government Accountability Office has reported that the Lightning II is running at least two years behind schedule and may not be available until 2016.

Another main concern resulting from the cancellation of the F-22 is whether the United States will be able to maintain air superiority against a variety of opponents, particularly in the Pacific and European theaters. The F-22 is exceedingly proficient at achieving those ends, with capabilities including stealth, target engagement beyond visual recognition, elite maneuverability because of thrust vectoring, and the ability to cruise at supersonic speeds. Many of the Raptor’s capabilities are classified. However, in a 2006 exercise against other U.S. jet fighters used to simulate top-of-the-line Russian fighters, the Raptor achieved a 108-0 kill ratio.

In the meantime, Russia and India are pursuing the PAK-FA, while China is developing the J-12, both of which are said to have advanced capabilities that can rival the proficiency of the F-22.

• David Centofante is a graduate student at Missouri State University’s Department of Defense and Strategic Studies.

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