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Stupid Analogies, Air Force Edition

4:36 PM, Feb 20, 2008 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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There's a lot of interesting debate in the blogosphere about the future of the Air Force. In particular, my lefty friend Robert Farley has inspired a number of exchanges on the direction the service should take. I don't agree with hardly anything he says, but he always makes an interesting case. Today he argues in favor of F-35 instead of F-22.

It's unclear why we need the F-22 now in the numbers that the Air Force wants. It's also unclear why procurement right now should favor the Air Force instead of the Army. The F-35 seems to me to be a much preferable option; it has ground attack and air superiority capability, it's being developed with a number of other countries, and it has variants that the United States Navy and several foreign navies want.

See Noonan's argument in favor of more F-22 below. As far as F-35 vs. F-22, there are good points to be made in favor of each. F-22 is a real airplane, with a production line and a fixed, if excessive, cost. F-35 is a concept, with an industrial base so large it likely could not be killed no matter what problems it faces or what its eventual cost (it is now nearly two-thirds the cost of an F-22, and rising). But F-35 is the only viable option for keeping America's allies dependent on American aircraft (as opposed to Russian, Swedish, or Euro birds). It's also going to have a ground attack capability that the F-22 does not currently have, as well as all types of promised efficiencies in maintenance and scale (believe it when you see it). Which is a long way of saying that there is room for interested parties to have a serious, substantive debate. And it looks like the Atlantic's Matt Yglesias will not be participating:

Instead of finding a cost-effective solution to the problem of aging F-15s -- like building new, somewhat upgraded F-15s -- the Air Force decided to design an impractically expensive new air superiority fighter. Having done so, the country now can't afford these planes in the quantity the Air Force deems desirable. It'd be as if the NYPD first insisted that in the future it would only buy cars from Lexus and then wound up puzzled as to why they didn't have enough cars.

No, it's not like that at all. The "problem" isn't aging F-15s, though that has made the issue more urgent, and it isn't that the Air Force is just angling for some shiny new whips. The problem is China, and F-22 has become an important part of this country's strategy for deterring a conflict in the Pacific, just as it was intended to deter the Russians when it was first designed at the end of the Cold War. Farley likes to hate on the Air Force, but at least one senses in his work some appreciation for the complexity of the challenges the service now faces.