Washington, D.C.--It is both painful and amusing to watch the crowing over this week's vote by the Senate to delete $1.75 billion in funding for the continued production of the Lockheed-Martin F-22A Raptor. There are numerous parties in the Obama camp calling this a spectacular victory, but so far no one has outdone the Huffington Post. There the president was hailed as the second coming of Dwight Eisenhower, fighting against the military industrial complex and along with Secretary Gates, "break[ing] its back."
The reality is not quite so dramatic. Michigan Senator Carl Levin, an opponent of the F-22 spending, said after last week's vote that "the president really needed to win this vote, not just in terms of the merits of the F-22 issue itself, but in terms of the reform agenda." In other words, this was a test of manhood between the White House and -- well, anyone who got in their way.
By making the vote on the F-22 a symbol for "who is in charge" the debate has not only become irrelevant to the nation's real defense requirements, it has also succeeded in propagating a number of myths that augur more bad policy when other defense procurement decisions have to be made further down the road.
Myth No. 1--Voting down funding for the Raptor was a blow against the "evil, military-industrial complex."
Nothing could be further from the truth. Taking the F-22 out of play leaves the field wide open for the other new-generation fighter that is in flight testing at the moment, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The F-35 is the most expensive program in the history of the U.S. Defense Department. A smaller, single-engined, stealthy fighter, it is the foundation of U.S. international cooperation for the future. There are nine major partner nations on the program, plus other nations that are not involved in the development phase but will purchase the aircraft as "Security Cooperative Participants."
No senior executive of the defense firms involved on the F-35 program would admit this, but the death of the F-22 is actually the best news they've had all year. Had the Raptor program continued on, several countries that have been pushing for the U.S. to overturn the Obey Amendment that bans the F-22's sale abroad would have eventually prevailed and exports of the aircraft to Japan, South Korea, Australia and others would have been the next shoe to drop.
This would have likely led some of the F-35's partners or prospective customers to leave the program and opt for an F-22 purchase instead, causing no end of unhappy repercussions. In the zero-sum game that is often the weapons buying business, the military-industrial complex has been handed a gift from the U.S. Congress because their customers now have no choice other than the F-35, which could be built in the thousands before the program is all over and done with.
Myth No. 2--The F-22 is a hugely expensive aircraft because defense contractors purposely are trying to gouge the taxpayer by making weapons that are unnecessarily overkill in terms of capability. The taxpayer won a victory when the Senate said no more would be built.
The F-22 has been an extremely expensive program to develop because its development has dragged on for so long. The original fly-off of YF-22 prototypes that selected the Raptor over the McDonnell-Douglas/Northrop YF-23 occurred in 1991. Development of the prototypes began long before this, so the F-22 has been in development for almost 20 years. This is largely due to the USAF customer selecting a prototype that required almost all of its major subsystems (i.e. radar, engines, avionics) to be developed specifically for this aircraft.
The USAF, in essence, selected an empty prototype -- an "aerodynamic paint job," as one U.S. aerospace analyst described it -- and then said to the contractors "now go develop the aircraft." The result has been a $32 billion bill. The $1.75 billion in funding the Senate Armed Services Committee was seeking to continue F-22 production represents about 5 percent of this R&D price tag. Saving such a (comparatively) paltry sum may make Senators feel noble, but it is virtually meaningless now. If Congress wanted to stop wasting taxpayer's money on what they now say is an overly-expensive program they are more than a decade too late.
Myth No. 3--The 187 F-22s to be built represents the number that would be available for combat missions should the aircraft be placed in a conflict.
When you are talking about modern fighter aircraft you have to remember that there will always be a certain number used for training, a certain number used for testing new weapons or on-board systems, a certain number being retrofitted with upgrades or refinements, and a certain number down for maintenance. When you subtract all of these, probably less than half of the 187 would be available at any given time for military operations.
In a major conflict such a small number of aircraft would be little more than a first day of the war silver bullet. With the developmental budget at $32 billion that is a very expensive bullet. This is not much of a return on the taxpayer's investment, to say nothing of the fact that such a small force of fighters would fall into that famous category of "if they were sent there to fight there are not enough and if they were sent to die there are too many."
Myth No. 4--It is good to cancel high-priced weapon systems like the F-22 because they are the reason for bloated defense budgets.
Big-ticket items like a high-technology fighters make an easy poster child for those that want to accuse the Pentagon of being the world's greatest spendthrift. The truth is that you could cancel every single weapons program on the armed forces' wish list and U.S. defense expenditures would still be sky-high. What represents the largest single cost in a time of major, multi-theatre, prolonged deployments are military personnel themselves. Payroll, benefits, medical, etc., are the lion's share of the budget, and will continue to grow to become an even larger share.
In terms of whether the aircraft is value for money, the numbers speak for themselves. Some 25 of the F-22s produced to date have been declared defect-free by the USAF upon delivery. "For the first fifth-generation fighter aircraft in U.S. history -- given the complexity of the aircraft, the twin-engine, thrust vectoring propulsion technology, the number of lines of computer code in the aircraft -- this is a remarkable achievement," said a Lockheed-Martin executive. "Given this accomplishment, it's a disservice to the people who designed and built the aircraft to use the F-22 as a whipping boy for this conflict between Congress and the White House."
Myth No. 5--The F-35 meets any and all conceivable technological challenges that might emerge in the next two decades.
The assertion has been made by SecDef Robert Gates that by 2020, 1,100 of the aircraft operated in the U.S. armed forces "will be the most advanced fifth-generation F-35s and F-22s. China, by contrast, is projected to have no fifth generation aircraft by 2020. And by 2025, the gap only widens. The U.S. will have approximately 1,700 of the most advanced fifth generation fighters versus a handful of comparable aircraft for the Chinese."
The difficulty with this line of reasoning is that the Chinese are not the only players in this game. Russia also continues to develop its own fifth-generation fighter, the Sukhoi design bureau's PAK-FA/T-50 project. The first model has already been delivered for validation on a structural test assembly stand. Moreover, the Sukhoi Su-35, described as a "fourth double plus-generation" aircraft is going into production soon, utilizing many of the fifth-generation T-50's components and technologies in its configuration.
Fighter aircraft performance analysts have raised questions as to whether the single-engine F-35 can take on these more powerful twin-engined aircraft and consistently prevail. Furthermore, the Chinese program, which may be developed in conjunction with Russia, stands every chance of being deployed earlier than Secretary Gate's predictions.
Finally, the F-22 was designed to replace the Boeing F-15 Eagle and become the upper tier of the U.S. Air Force's long-standing force mix of a heavy (F-15 to be replaced by the F-22) and light/medium (F-16 to be replaced by F-35) fighter aircraft. The small numbers of F-22s to be built will not be nearly enough to fill in for all of the F-15s currently in service. The future seems to be one in which a small number of F-22s will have to be supported by an aging inventory of F-15s. Keeping these older aircraft still in operation past their intended service life is going to be another increasing expense.
Add up all the real-world facts and there does not seem to be much of a victory here for any one--the possible exception being those nations who are planning to do battle with the U.S. in the future and will now face a mere token force of F-22s. The decision not to continue F-22 production might be justified on other grounds, but this week's vote has been based on a set of false assumptions and creates a false sense of economy. The future of U.S. combat airpower is much too serious a business for it to be held hostage to this manner of legislative myth-making.
Reuben F. Johnson is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.