The Magazine

The Untimely Demise of the F-22

A triumph for the military-industrial complex.

Aug 17, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 45 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned "against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." Last month, John McCain invoked that warning as he fought alongside the Obama administration and Senate Democrats to strip a relatively paltry $1.75 billion in funding for the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor out of the defense authorization bill, delivering the death blow to a program that currently produces the world's only fifth-generation fighter.

Just 183 F-22s have been built, and after another 4 are completed this year, the production line will be shut down for good. A fleet of that size "puts execution of our current national military strategy at high risk in the near to mid-term," General John Corley, commander of Air Combat Command, told Senator Saxby Chambliss in a letter in June. A few weeks before that, Air Force chief of staff General Norton A. Schwartz appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee and characterized the risk to national security from halting F-22 procurement at 187 as "moderate to high." And in April retired General Richard Hawley, a former commander of Air Combat Command, told a Senate committee that the administration's recommendation to kill the F-22 "rests on an assertion that we cannot afford to equip our airmen, on whom we rely to gain and maintain air superiority, with the best weapons that our defense industrial base has developed."

The Air Force had initially planned to purchase some 750 of the super-stealthy jet fighter, but that number steadily dwindled as costs skyrocketed and delays mounted--a "death spiral" that now seems to afflict every Air Force procurement program but is most acutely felt in the development and production of jet fighters.

More than $60 billion has been spent on the research, development, and procurement of the F-22, putting the per unit cost of each aircraft at roughly $340 million. But the marginal cost of buying one additional aircraft has come down to (just!) $138 million, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that a larger order of 70 additional aircraft could have brought that number down to $70 million a pop.

Yet when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went to Chicago last month to make the administration's case for killing the program (and several others), he didn't portray the F‑22 as unaffordable--just unnecessary. Gates said the administration wanted to end F-22 production in favor of another jet, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, which has yet to enter production. "If properly supported, the F-35 will be the backbone of America's tactical aviation fleet for decades to come," Gates said in the speech, "if--and it's a big if--money is not drained away to spend on other aircraft."

Opponents of the F-22 were careful to frame the fight against continued procurement as a fight against wasteful spending and the special interests that profit from it. "We do not need these planes," Obama said in a letter to senators from his own party after first the House and then the Senate Armed Services Committees voted to add funding for the aircraft to a Pentagon budget that requested none. Obama threatened to veto his own defense authorization bill if the funding wasn't stripped out.

The plane's critics could offer a litany of reasons for why we didn't need the planes, some more compelling than others. The F-22 "has not supported a single mission in Iraq or Afghanistan," Colorado senator Michael Bennet said. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden said more money for the F-22 would be "the very definition of government waste" and as proof pointed to the fact that the Pentagon, which "hasn't exactly been shy about calling for additional weapons, say[s] this is unnecessary." "It is a cold war relic," declared the military experts who edit the New York Times, noting that it was conceived to counter a Soviet threat that never materialized. And just days before the Senate vote, the administration engineered a Washington Post report that quoted one anonymous Pentagon official blasting the F-22 as incapable of flying more than an average of "1.7 hours before it gets a critical failure."