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The F-22: Raptor or Albatross?

9:00 AM, Dec 9, 2010 • By MICHAEL AUSLIN
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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. 

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