President Barack Obama must soon decide whether to order the building of more F-22 Raptors or let the production lines close. Only 203 of the aircraft described by the think tank Air Power Australia as “the most capable multirole combat aircraft in production today” have been built or ordered.
Support for the aircraft is not limited to defense hawks. Last month, 44 U.S. senators, including Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, sent the president a letter requesting an additional order of unspecified size to prevent the planned 2011 shutdown. Bowing to political reality rather than true military needs, the Air Force now claims it could possibly get by with just 60 more aircraft.
Despite this, the Raptor may well have its wings clipped. The main reason: Strategists plan to fight the next war based on the last (or current) one. Where once we planned for massive set-piece battles, now it seems many can’t see beyond guerrilla warfare with lightly armed insurgents.
The F-22, which entered service three years ago, blends key technologies that formerly existed only separately on other aircraft - or not at all. Its stealthiness will make trigger-happy combatants shoot at birds. It has agility, air-to-air combat abilities and penetrability far beyond that of the F-15 Eagle which entered service 33 years ago. It cruises at Mach-plus speeds without using fuel-guzzling afterburners.
But the end of the Cold War, the current guerrilla wars, and what Air Power Australia calls a deliberate campaign of “concocting untruthful stories about its capabilities, utility and cost,” has devastated Raptor purchases. Originally the Air Force requested up to 762, but that was progressively cut to 648, 442, 339, then 277 before the current 203, of which 134 have been built.
A major criticism of the Raptor is the cost - about $339 million per aircraft. But much of this reflects a wisely added ground attack role and a sneaky but common ruse used to cut weapon procurements. Technology development costs are fixed. So each time an order is reduced, per-unit prices go up. Critics slashed the F-22 order, and then cited the “stunning” per-unit cost to slash away again.
This game has played out with one weapon system after another, helping explain why an initial plan for acquiring 132 B-2 Spirit bombers ended with a pitiful purchase of 21. But the current per-unit cost for each additional F-22 is around $136 million, according to the Air Force.
If necessary, the Air Force says it will try to fill the F-22 shortage by keeping F-15s flying to 2025. It won’t work. Even eight years ago, “some foreign aircraft we’ve been able to test, our best pilots flying their airplanes [from other countries] beat our pilots flying our airplanes every time,” then-Air Force chief of staff Gen. John Jumper told Congress.
Two years earlier, the independent Federation of American Scientists (FAS) noted that the Russian Sukhoi Flanker Su-27, which entered service eight years after the Eagle, “leveled the playing field” with the F-15. Su-27s, both Russian-built and Chinese-pirated copies, are now in arsenals around the world.
Nor are enemy fighters our only worry. Russian surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) have improved dramatically in recent years. The country’s S-300 system is “one of the most lethal, if not the most lethal, all-altitude area defense,” noted the International Strategy and Assessment Service, a Virginia-based think tank, three years ago. China also has the S-300 and the Russians announced in December they’ll soon sell units to Iran.
The sale not only would threaten stand-off warning and control systems like AWACS but also tremendously boost defense of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor and Natanz uranium-enrichment site.
Yet the newer S-400 system, already deployed, is far better able to detect low-signature targets at far greater distances. When mated with the recently-tested Triumf SA-20/21 missile, it can even knock down ballistic missiles.
“Only the F-22 can survive in airspace defended by increasingly capable surface-to-air missiles,” declared Air Force Association President Mike Dunn in December.
Some have demanded trading off F-22s for more of the cheaper F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), although it’s vastly inferior in both air-to-air combat and ground defense penetration. Further, much of that lower price reflects the economy of scale of the vastly larger order F-35 orders, even as increased development costs have tremendously upped the Lightning II price tag.
The current Air Force budget estimate says the “flyaway unit cost” of its F-35 version will be strikingly higher than that of the F-22 during the first four years of production. Only then will assembly-line expansion drop the F-35 sticker to $91 billion by fiscal 2013.
The Russia bear has awakened from hibernation to rebuild its lost empire. China continues its inexorable military expansion. Iran desperately wants The Bomb, while North Korea revels in unpredictability. Yes, Virginia, we really do have potential enemies with weapons other than automatic assault rifles and improvised explosive devices. We desperately need far more F-22 Raptors - preferably to prevent wars, but if need be, to win them.
Michael Fumento is a free-lance writer, lawyer and policy analyst.