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A Win-Win Deal for the F-22

12:02 PM, Apr 27, 2007 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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The president headed to Camp David today with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. Following an "intimate" dinner last night at the White House, where the two leaders were joined by their wives, their respective ambassadors, and golfer Ben Crenshaw, they will spend today discussing a range of issues at the presidential retreat--balancing against China and managing a nuclear North Korea are likely at the top of that list.

As Duncan Currie wrote in this week's issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, "the [U.S.-Japan] alliance remains structurally robust." But there is at least one rather simple way that the president might strengthen that alliance and go a long way toward balancing against China and North Korea: provide the Japanese with access to the F-22 Raptor--the world's most advanced air superiority fighter.

As things stand now, sale of the F-22 to foreign governments requires Congressional oversight and approval, but an agreement between the two leaders would likely assure Congressional support for such an arrangement.

070401-F-6701P-046.jpgAccording to Aviation Week, acquiring the F-22 has become "a point of pride with the Japanese" military, but one industry source quoted by the magazine says that Japanese politicians have yet to "realize that it's a matter of national survival, not just national pride."

We've written here before on the impact such a sale might have on the balance of power in the Pacific--in short, there's little or no downside, other than rankling the Chinese. And the aircraft would be a significant boost to Japan's ability to deter aggression--or project power in the event that deterrence fails. But there's a huge upside for the American military as well.

The F-22 is not only the world's most advanced fighter, it's also the most expensive. So expensive that the Pentagon has cut its initial order of 750 aircraft down to a paltry 183. As the Pentagon cut numbers, the unit cost of the aircraft rose, forcing the Pentagon to make further cuts, and so on, in a vicious cycle referred to as "the death spiral."

Of course, much of the cost comes from research and development--meaning that billions are spent before the first plane is even built. Now that full-scale production is under way, the marginal cost of building additional copies is significantly less that the average cost of each aircraft. So while the government may end up paying as much as $312 million, on average, for each F-22 in the inventory, the marginal cost of producing one more F-22 might be as little as $132 million.

An article by SSgt C. Todd Lopez that appeared in the Air Force Print News this week gives what may be the best account I've read on the cost breakdown of the F-22.

One roadblock to more Raptors is the aircraft's high cost. Estimates for the fighter jet range from as little as $132 million to as much as $312 million. So far, the Air Force has invested as much as $28 billion in the Raptor's research, development and testing. That money, referred to as a "sunk cost," is already spent and is separate from money used for future decision-making, including procuring a copy of the jet.

By the time all 183 jets have been purchased, around $28 billion will have been spent on research and development. An additional $34 billion will have been spent on actually procuring the aircraft. That's about $62 billion for the total program cost. Divided out, that's comes to about $338 million per aircraft.

But the reality is, if the Air Force wanted to buy just one more jet, it would cost the taxpayer less than half that amount. The current cost for a single copy of an F-22 stands at about $137 million. And that number has dropped by 23 percent since Lot 3 procurement, General Lewis said.

"The cost of the airplane is going down," he said. "And the next 100 aircraft, if I am allowed to buy another 100 aircraft ... the average fly-away cost would be $116 million per airplane."

General Lewis also says that 183 F-22s just isn't enough: