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The F-22: Raptor or Albatross?

9:00 AM, Dec 9, 2010 • By MICHAEL AUSLIN
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The F-22: Raptor or Albatross?

After years of ignoring North Korean aggression and provocations, the South Korean government has stated that any future attacks will result in war on the peninsula. In such a crisis as happening now on the Korean peninsula, one assumes the political and military leadership of the United States would deploy its most sophisticated weapons to the Korean peninsula, both as a warning to Pyongyang and as a capable force to defend against any further aggression in support of our South Korean allies. Yet what was missing from the joint military exercises last week between the U.S. and South Korean navies, in which the U.S.S. George Washington aircraft carrier and several American guided missile destroyers and cruisers joined several Korean ships? The answer: America’s most capable attack fighter, the 5th generation stealthy F-22 Raptor.

A major part of North Korea’s threat comes from its artillery force, the largest in the world, as well as its missile and ground forces. Much of the North’s artillery is hidden well inland, in trenches, mountainsides, and underground bases, making counter-battery attacks by U.S.-South Korean forces challenging and less effective. Even more daunting, North Korea has the ability to fire ballistic missiles at U.S.,Korean, and Japanese bases across the region, and U.S. commanders will face the necessity of quickly conducting counter-offensive operations against the North's ability to conduct such attacks. Thus, air-delivered precision guided munitions are an essential pillar of the commander's arsenal to take out those weapons. Yet North Korea also has an extensive air defense network of SA-2, SA-3, and SA-5 surface-to-air missiles, along with over 10,000 anti-aircraft guns and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. While its AAA guns are not all radar guided, the majority of its surface-to-air missiles are, and the North would throw a lot of accurately targeted metal into the air to knock down incoming U.S. and South Korean air forces. 

Thus, in a purely military operational world, there seems little doubt that U.S. commanders in the Pacific would both need and want the unique capabilities of the F-22 Raptor. It is the only one assured of operating not only in the border regions of the Korean peninsula but also, thanks to its 60,000 foot operational ceiling and supercruise ability, of penetrating Pyongyang’s airspace, which some believe is the most heavily defended city in the world. It is the only fighter that can be assured of surviving and knocking out North Korean air defenses, especially the SA-5 missile, and holding the North Korean leadership at risk, or allowing other U.S. fighters and perhaps bombers to do the same thing. At the same time, the F-22 also acts as a vital intelligence gathering platform, and could provide U.S. commanders with on-scene pilot evaluated signals and imagery intelligence from deep inside North Korea that satellites might not be positioned in time to catch and which vulnerable unmanned drones might not be able to reach. 

So in a crisis situation, but before hostilities had broken out, sending the F-22s to Korea to do air exercises along the Demilitarized Zone and contested coastlines would send a powerful message about U.S. capabilities and willingness to deploy our best weapons systems to the doorstep of conflict. That message might be enough to get the North, or any other adversary, to think twice about starting a conflict. Any commander worth his salt would certainly want such an option available to him. And American taxpayers, who financed the development of the F-22, might wonder what crisis would be enough for it to start playing a role.

But the F-22 Raptor is today a political albatross. According to some, the operational world described above takes a backseat to political maneuvering designed to keep the F-22 away from any role in projecting American power abroad. Allowing the F-22 to prove its worth, they believe, might raise questions about why the program was scrapped after just 187 planes, and spur debate over whether that small number is enough to deal with dangerous regimes like North Korea, let alone a nuclear Iran, an assertive China, or a Russia that is now building its own fifth generation fighter and is reported to be moving tactical nuclear warheads closer to its European borders.

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