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The F-22: Raptor or Albatross?

9:00 AM, Dec 9, 2010 • By MICHAEL AUSLIN
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Future control of the aerial battlespace, then, will likely be dependent on our small force of F-22s.  Operating in environments with advanced surface-to-air missile systems and fourth and one day fifth generation fighters, it will be up to the F-22 to clear out air defenses and maintain control the skies, otherwise any follow-on American military operations, including ground attack, will be at risk. Hidden missile systems, redundant air defenses, and the “homefield” advantage of tech-savvy adversaries will mean that the F-22 will be required throughout the duration of the campaign. This will put enormous strain on the small force—unless its deterrent power is utilized early and often, thereby increasing the likelihood that potential adversaries will choose not to initiate hostilities, which is the ultimate goal of U.S. military planners. The very fact that Russia and China are developing their own F-22 equivalents is proof of how deadly they understand the Raptor to be either in peacetime or wartime.

This brings us back to today’s Korean crisis. It is hard to think of a clearer case where the F-22 should be deployed. What political message does it send North Korea, let alone Russia or Iran, when we refuse to let our most advanced fighter be part of a vital deterrent operation? If we continue to hesitate to use the plane, the likelihood is that one day we’ll be forced to. The F-22 should never have become a political football, and that is the fault of everyone involved in the program, politicians, industrialists, and military officers alike. But we have the airplane now, it works, and is being flown by the world’s best pilots. The longer those pilots sit on the ground, however, the more emboldened aggressive and authoritarian powers become. 

Tensions are still boiling on the Korean peninsula, and there are news reports that the United States and South Korea are planning follow-on naval maneuvers later this month to send a further deterrent message to North Korea. That’s the right thing to do, and when it happens, Pacific Command should request and receive F-22s to participate in broader air and naval exercises. It’s time to turn the F-22 albatross back into the Raptor.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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