For the last several weeks, Air Force Secretary Deborah James has been touting the deployment of F-22 Raptor fighters – the best plane America owns – to Germany as “the strong side of the coin” in an effort to reassure Eastern Europeans who have seen their air space increasingly violated by Russian jets. “Russia’s military activity in the Ukraine continues to be of great concern to us and our European allies,” she said.
Turns out that the strong side of the coin was just four aircraft, two of which yesterday took a day trip to Last Air Force Base in central Poland. That’ll show them Rooskies!
To his credit, Defense Secretary Ash Carter seems to remember that the United States is a global power and that “pivoting to the Pacific” does little to reassure the rest of the world. But his argument for a “strong and balanced” approach to Europe is severely undercut by the size of the force at his disposal and its declining state of readiness. Looked at realistically, the F-22 ballyhoo is a measure of weakness, not strength.
Now, the F-22 is a superb fighter, the best in the world. But four Raptors – whose home base is Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, a very long way from eastern Ukraine – is a very small number, a fraction of what would be needed to sustain combat air patrols over Europe’s contested skies. The total Raptor fleet is just 185 planes, and the demand for air superiority is global. No wonder the Air Force is thrilling to the Germany deployment; they don’t get to do stuff like this much any more. Service leaders have been cooking up a “Rapid Raptor” package, including airlift, flight crews and spare parts, that would enable these kinds of four-ship formations to move from their home bases in the U.S. to trouble spots on short notice.
Indeed, this two-week exercise is the first operational deployment of the F-22 to Europe, even though the Raptor has been in service for a decade; the Bush Administration pointedly refused to deploy F-22s during the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, lest it seem too provocative. So this exercise is also a measure of how Vladimir Putin’s belligerence has caught the Obama administration and the Pentagon off guard. The decision to terminate F-22 procurement was taken in 2009, in part because of defense budget cuts but also in because there seemed to be little need for such a super-fighter.
The Air Force needs anywhere from 375 to 450 F-22s to sustain the kinds of global patrolling required for a serious deterrent posture, with a permanent presence in the Pacific (including the South Pacific) and the Middle East as well as Europe. Raptors based at home should be reinforcements, not the front line of defense. It would cost a lot of money – maybe as much as $1 billion – to restart F-22 production, but it is one of the few things the next president could do to jump-start the rebuilding of America’s military.