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Myths Of The Raptor

Obama's "victory" over the F-22.

2:45 PM, Jul 27, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Washington, D.C.--It is both painful and amusing to watch the crowing over this week's vote by the Senate to delete $1.75 billion in funding for the continued production of the Lockheed-Martin F-22A Raptor. There are numerous parties in the Obama camp calling this a spectacular victory, but so far no one has outdone the Huffington Post. There the president was hailed as the second coming of Dwight Eisenhower, fighting against the military industrial complex and along with Secretary Gates, "break[ing] its back."

The reality is not quite so dramatic. Michigan Senator Carl Levin, an opponent of the F-22 spending, said after last week's vote that "the president really needed to win this vote, not just in terms of the merits of the F-22 issue itself, but in terms of the reform agenda." In other words, this was a test of manhood between the White House and -- well, anyone who got in their way.

By making the vote on the F-22 a symbol for "who is in charge" the debate has not only become irrelevant to the nation's real defense requirements, it has also succeeded in propagating a number of myths that augur more bad policy when other defense procurement decisions have to be made further down the road.

Myth No. 1--Voting down funding for the Raptor was a blow against the "evil, military-industrial complex."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Taking the F-22 out of play leaves the field wide open for the other new-generation fighter that is in flight testing at the moment, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The F-35 is the most expensive program in the history of the U.S. Defense Department. A smaller, single-engined, stealthy fighter, it is the foundation of U.S. international cooperation for the future. There are nine major partner nations on the program, plus other nations that are not involved in the development phase but will purchase the aircraft as "Security Cooperative Participants."

No senior executive of the defense firms involved on the F-35 program would admit this, but the death of the F-22 is actually the best news they've had all year. Had the Raptor program continued on, several countries that have been pushing for the U.S. to overturn the Obey Amendment that bans the F-22's sale abroad would have eventually prevailed and exports of the aircraft to Japan, South Korea, Australia and others would have been the next shoe to drop.

This would have likely led some of the F-35's partners or prospective customers to leave the program and opt for an F-22 purchase instead, causing no end of unhappy repercussions. In the zero-sum game that is often the weapons buying business, the military-industrial complex has been handed a gift from the U.S. Congress because their customers now have no choice other than the F-35, which could be built in the thousands before the program is all over and done with.

Myth No. 2--The F-22 is a hugely expensive aircraft because defense contractors purposely are trying to gouge the taxpayer by making weapons that are unnecessarily overkill in terms of capability. The taxpayer won a victory when the Senate said no more would be built.

The F-22 has been an extremely expensive program to develop because its development has dragged on for so long. The original fly-off of YF-22 prototypes that selected the Raptor over the McDonnell-Douglas/Northrop YF-23 occurred in 1991. Development of the prototypes began long before this, so the F-22 has been in development for almost 20 years. This is largely due to the USAF customer selecting a prototype that required almost all of its major subsystems (i.e. radar, engines, avionics) to be developed specifically for this aircraft.

The USAF, in essence, selected an empty prototype -- an "aerodynamic paint job," as one U.S. aerospace analyst described it -- and then said to the contractors "now go develop the aircraft." The result has been a $32 billion bill. The $1.75 billion in funding the Senate Armed Services Committee was seeking to continue F-22 production represents about 5 percent of this R&D price tag. Saving such a (comparatively) paltry sum may make Senators feel noble, but it is virtually meaningless now. If Congress wanted to stop wasting taxpayer's money on what they now say is an overly-expensive program they are more than a decade too late.

Myth No. 3--The 187 F-22s to be built represents the number that would be available for combat missions should the aircraft be placed in a conflict.