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."
The F-22 was unnecessary because the Air Force doesn't use it, doesn't want it, and doesn't need it--and the plane doesn't work anyway. It would be madness not to kill the thing and start buying the more affordable, more effective, more relevant F-35. Or so the administration said. "I reject the notion that we have to waste billions of taxpayer dollars on outdated and unnecessary defense products to keep this nation secure," President Obama said in a celebratory address from the Rose Garden after F-22 funding was defeated in the Senate. But just two days later, Congressional Quarterly reported the existence of a Pentagon study showing that the F-35, the plane Gates said would be "the backbone of America's tactical aviation fleet for decades to come," was running some two years behind schedule--it won't move out of development and into production until 2016 at the earliest.
In May the Government Accountability Office estimated that U.S. investment in the F-35 would total "more than $300 billion to develop and procure 2,456 aircraft over the next 25 years." That works out to about $122 million and change for each aircraft. Allied militaries are expected to buy at least 700 additional F-35s. The jet will come in at least five variants: a conventional fighter for the Air Force, a short takeoff, vertical-landing variant for the Marines, a carrier version for the Navy, and export versions of the Air Force and Marines variants. Not surprisingly, a program this complicated has already entered its own death spiral--the estimated cost of the program has risen 45 percent since 2001, and Congress has already responded by trimming the total procurement by more than 500 planes. This latest two-year delay could cost an additional $7.4 billion according to the Pentagon's report--assuming, of course, that there are no further delays or overruns.
But even if by some miracle the defense industry is able to deliver the F-35 on budget and on time from here on out, the F-35 will never be able to do what the F-22 does. The F-35 will be a more versatile plane, capable of operating from a wide variety of platforms and performing a more diverse set of missions--including a far more robust close-air support function. But it is not a pure air- to-air fighter like the F-‑22. After the Senate vote, General Peter Pawling, who moved to the staff of U.S. Pacific Command earlier this year after serving as commander of the Hawaii Air National Guard's 154th Wing, told Aviation Week's David Fulghum that he was "still planning on getting those airplanes." "There is nothing out there that can fly against it," Pawling said. "If we had a major conflict [against someone with advanced air defenses], I can't imagine going in there with anything but an F-22."
Indeed, that same day Fulghum quoted another Air Force official, this one identified only as a "senior intelligence officer." "The F-35 is not an F‑22 by a long shot," he told Fulghum, "there's no way it's going to penetrate Chinese Air Defenses if there's ever a clash." Concerns about the F-35's ability to penetrate sophisticated air defenses center on doubts about just how stealthy the plane will be. A study published earlier this year by Air Power Australia (Australia is one of the F-35 partner countries) concluded that the Joint Strike Fighter is "demonstrably not a true stealth aircraft in the sense of designs like the F-117A, B-2A, and F-22A." The F-22 can also fly higher, faster, and farther than the F-35 and all while carrying twice as many air-to-air weapons in stealth mode.
Which may explain why some potential customers for the F-35, including Japan, Australia, and Israel, have expressed interest in purchasing the F‑22 instead and have lobbied the U.S. government to repeal a statute prohibiting export of the fighter. The Japanese in particular have pushed for access to the F-22--even though the U.S. government put the price for just 40 planes at $11.6 billion, or $290 million per aircraft. Putting 40 additional F-22s in the Western Pacific would have obvious military advantages, and the sale would allow the government to recover sunk costs while reducing the marginal cost of additional aircraft for the Air Force, but neither the Air Force nor industry is pushing for such a sale.
There are some questions opponents of the F-22 ought to be asking: Why do our richest allies (as well as our own air combat commanders) seem to prefer the F-22 to the F-35? Why is it that the Obama administration, the defense industry, and Congress have all lined up against the F-22--a plane with known costs and capabilities--in favor of a plane that may cost more and offer less? Why isn't Lockheed pushing to repeal the export ban on the F-22? For that matter, why did Lockheed stop lobbying the Hill for continued production of the F-22 once the Gates budget came out? And why did Lockheed request that Boeing--the junior partner on the F-22, responsible for about a third of the aircraft's production--cease its own lobbying campaign on behalf of the aircraft?
There is one obvious explanation for all of this: The military-industrial complex stands to make a lot more money off the F-35 than it could from the F-22. And Boeing is not a Lockheed Martin partner on the F-35. So once the F-22 production line closes, Boeing will be out of the fighter business entirely, leaving Lockheed the U.S. government's only supplier of fighter aircraft.
The irony of the political fight over the F-22 is that the president's supporters, in their eagerness to strike a blow against the military-industrial complex, unwittingly ended up doing a defense industry giant's dirty work for it. When the F-22 production line dies, the last major obstacle to the F-35 will die with it. There will be no choice but to build the F-35--whatever the cost or the aircraft's limitations.
The Obama administration is cutting procurement programs that it deems unnecessary and irrelevant given the current threat environment, but it was investment in technologies like the F-22 that deterred America's competitors from trying to challenge American air superiority in the first place. It's been 57 years since an American soldier on the ground was killed by enemy airpower. Whether sought or unsought, the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex has put that legacy at risk.
Michael Goldfarb is online editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.