- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Amid financial upheaval and a plethora of global crises, what issue kept members of Congress awake and debating until 2:30 a.m. last Thursday?

It wasn’t conflict in Pakistan, Iranian elections, or North Korean warmongering. It was an obscure $369 million clause in the defense budget that nevertheless holds enormous consequences for U.S. national security.

A $369 million price tag may not sound like much in today’s political landscape, but this tidy sum is enough to keep production lines open for the cutting-edge and controversial F-22 Raptor. Debate has been vigorous, but the F-22 line enjoys bipartisan support and the availability of reasonable, unobligated funding options in fiscal 2010 and the possibility of production in fiscal 2011. Congress and the president must take further steps to make sure this program keeps flying.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has made a valiant effort to reform weapons acquisition and views the Raptor as one program that should be cut. To be sure, the pursuit of unneeded weapon programs truly hampers our ability to field the best possible national defense. Some cuts must be made, even difficult ones.

But Mr. Gates is woefully wrong about the F-22. The United States needs a fifth generation air superiority fighter capable of deterring conflict and defeating enemies, now and several decades into the future.

The continuing development of advanced fighters and proliferation of surface-to-air missile systems abroad is increasingly placing American air superiority in question. Adopting a strategic approach, one must recognize that American aerial platforms will encounter threats far more formidable than current ones. Existing fourth generation fighters from China and Russia can already challenge our legacy platforms. Their fifth generation aircraft will be even more formidable. Mobile SAM systems capable of engaging units hundreds of kilometers away will threaten our freedom of action. As evidenced in the recent war in Georgia, Russian S-400 SAM batteries could have denied access to every U.S. platform but the F-22.

As the Air Force’s aircraft continue to age, our fighter fleet will shrink, possibly to the point at which we could easily be outnumbered. Josef Stalin’s old adage of “quantity has a quality of its own” does, indeed, apply. When confronted with a numerically larger and well-trained force, American pilots will need not only superior aircraft but also sufficient numbers of them to triumph. Mr. Gates should heed the analysis of numerous Department of Defense and nondepartmental experts, whose reports have outlined the realistic requirements of continued air superiority. Chief of Staff of the Air Force Norton A. Schwartz testified that the military requirement is 243 F-22s. John Stillion and Scott Perdue of Rand have pointed out that both additional forward bases and more F-22s are needed. Head of the Air Combat Command Gen. John Corley stated, “a fleet of 187 F-22s puts execution of our current national military strategy at a high risk in the near- to midterm.” The long-term outlook may be even more perilous.

After years of unquestioned U.S. air superiority, it is easy to forget how much combat operations depend on airspace control. Raptor critics often cite the fact that the F-22 has found no combat role in Iraq or Afghanistan.

While true, it would be a mistake to assume that all future adversaries will be low-tech and poorly trained. Without enough of the right fighters, airspace control could be impossible to achieve in future contingencies.

Critics contend that increased production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will compensate for a smaller fleet of F-22s. Yes, accelerated production of the F-35 is necessary for both the United States and our friends abroad.

However, Mr. Gates has stoked adversarial competition between the two aircraft, ignoring the fact that they are fundamentally different. Although the F-35 will excel in an air-to-ground role, its flight, stealth and missile load-out characteristics are significantly inferior to the F-22. U.S. air power will only succeed through the combined capabilities of a sufficient number of both F-22s and F-35s. Originally the Air Force called for 750 F-22s. That number was reduced to 381, then 243. Will it be cut even further to 187?

As we continue operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, we must remember that in a globalizing world, the future of conflict may be very different from the present. But air power, essential for all other forms of power, must remain a central element of U.S. security strategy. Neither the F-35 nor future unmanned fighters can ensure U.S. air superiority over the next 15 years. For this reason, the F-22 is crucial. Congress must act to save it.

Timothy Walton and Randal Drew are Carroll Fellows at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.

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