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Return of the Raptor?

12:46 PM, Aug 2, 2010 • By JOHN NOONAN
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Some heartening news out of the defense procurement world today:

The Air Force will hang on to its F-22 tooling at Lockheed Martin's Marietta, Ga., production plant even after it stops making the fifth generation fighter jet in 2012, according to Flight International's Stephen Trimble. Though the Air Force has said in the past the goal would be to provide a long-time service plan for the jets, “the decision also implicitly preserves the option to restart production if future administrations decide that the USAF needs more than 186 F-22s,” Trimble writes.

The campaign to prematurely kill the Raptor was fueled by two fundamental points. First, the F-22 is expensive. That much is irrefutable, high-tech generally means high-cost, though building a fraction of the planned aircrafts and refusing to export the jet to key allies like Japan and Australia unnecessarily hiked up the price tag. Second, the absence of a large peer competitor like the USSR has rendered the need for tactical air supremacy obsolete. This latter point, though, is dubious. 

For the past 60 years, every major American military operation has been predicated on the assumption that our troops would have airpower on demand (and, conversely, would be free to conduct operations without the threat of enemy air support). Air power has fused into every aspect of U.S. warfighting, partly as an offshoot of the combined arms doctrines that emerged during the Cold War. During Vietnam, American military strategists realized just how dependent the soldier become on on-demand close air support. Unacceptable losses, both to MiGs and ground fire, drove home the point that losing control of the skies could cost friendly forces dearly in both lives and treasure. 

After Vietnam, the lieutenants and captains of Vietnam went to work, drawing up strategies to firmly entrench U.S. air supremacy into the pages of American military doctrine. They learned, adapted, and revolutionized the use of airpower on the battlefield. By 1991, those junior officers had become colonels and generals, charged with toppling Saddam's massive army. The result of their strategic thinking was perhaps the most brilliant air campaign in the history of warfare. One month of sustained air attacks on Saddam's "centers of gravity," as handled by Air Force planners, rendered the 4th largest army in the world a hollow shell and wrote a new chapter in U.S. military history.  For the next few decades, tactical command of the skies would determine strategic victory. 

Enter the F-22, born of the same transformational period. The next generation of fighter wouldn't just be able to splash enemy bogeys, but would serve as a conventional deterrent, a host to advanced new sensors, and a wholly capable intelligence gathering platform. It would be able to swiftly and silently swoop in and out of the most aggressive enemy air defenses, gathering information and ready to act on that intelligence if necessary. 

The Air Force originally planned for 750 Raptors -- at the time called the Advanced Tactical Fighter -- as a replacement for the venerable F-15 Eagle. Strategic shifts, like the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the infantry-heavy war on terrorism, steadily decreased the fleet's planned end-strength until Congress settled on 187 airframes in 2006. 

As Russia and China continue their steady defense buildups and America's aging fighter fleet continues to decay, the need for the "finest fighter jet ever built" only grows. Keeping that Lockheed assembly line open may seem like mundane news today. But it could end up saving the military big bucks down the line, as the peer threat looms larger. 

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