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.
There is no doubt that the delayed development and production time of the F-22 contributed mightily to its marginalization. Those delays, lasting through the 1990s and early 2000s, led to repeated cuts in the total number of planes being built, which in turn drove up the unit costs. It is, moreover, very expensive to fly the plane, as its unique radar absorbing skin must be kept in pristine condition. Each F-22 costs about $350 million if total program costs (including research, development, and testing) are factored in, but about $150 million per plane in “flyaway” costs, according to the Air Force. Obviously, capping the number of F-22s at 187 dramatically increased the final total program cost of each plane.
Perhaps more significantly, the fighter, which began its design phase back in the 1980s, did not become operational until 2005. It thereby not only missed the Cold War, but also the 1991 war with Iraq, the 1999 air campaign in the former Yugoslavia, and the 2003 Iraq War. The plane had no chance to prove its utility either as an attack fighter or an intelligence gatherer, and it quickly became the target of many in administrations from George H. W. Bush's through Barack Obama's as well as on Capitol Hill who wanted to kill the project, seeing it as a symbol of the cold war and excessive defense spending. With the Air Force being closed mouthed about the Raptors full capabilities and failing to argue the larger strategic implications of having the plane, the F-22’s enemies successfully killed the program in July 2009, just at the moment when full production was reached and all the research and development costs of the plane had been spent.
Many in the Air Force believe, moreover, that the plane has purposely been kept away from operations in which it could prove its worth. Several retired senior officials and military officers told me that during the Russian invasion of George in 2008, for example, discussions were held on establishing a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone over Georgia, to give the Georgians a chance of repelling Russian troops. Given Russian advanced surface-to-air missile systems and top of the line Su-35 fighters, only the F-22 would have been assured of being able to enforce the no-fly zone. This would have been the first deployment of the plane to a conflict zone and would have shown its superior capabilities. Yet, according to the same sources, political decisions in Washington quickly shot down the idea of using the Raptors, and the program was cancelled less than a year later. Additionally, these same forces denied all requests from the commanders in CENTCOM for the F-22 to deploy to either Iraq or Afghanistan after 2005.
Now, just 18 months after the Senate Armed Services Committee stripped funding for the final seven F-22s, the world looks if anything a more dangerous place. Iran steadily marches toward the atomic bomb, while Russia develops and sells the world’s most advanced air defense systems and is actively working on a heavy, twin-engine, fifth generation stealth fighter of its own that will likely be ready around 2020. Those who deride Russian aeronautical engineering should remember the superiority of many Russian fighters during the Cold War, including the MiG-15 and Su-27 Flanker. Meanwhile, China bullies its maritime neighbors while building up its missile and air forces, and North Korea regularly commits acts of war against the South while selling ballistic missiles to Iran.
And the United States? The majority of its current fighters were designed in the 1960s and procured largely in the 1980s, while its bomber fleet flies the 1960s B-52 and has introduced no new platform since the 1990s. More worrisome, the next major fighter, the F-35, which was sold to Congress as an equal substitute for the F-22, remains mired in production delays of its own, even as questions continue to be raised about its utility against high-end threats due to its slower speed and smaller payload. Pentagon acquisitions chief Ashton Carter just acknowledged his disappointment with the development schedule and increasing costs of the F-35 program, now nearing $100 million per plane, and its Initial Operating Capability is being pushed into the latter part of this decade.
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.