The Fighter Force You Have

Feb. 1, 2005

The F/A-22 fighter program recently swerved off the road again. Only one month into the year-long Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon suddenly imposed a huge and unexpected cut.

The shake-up came in late December when Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered USAF to halt Raptor production in 2008 at 180 aircraft, cutting $10 billion and about 100 fighters from the program. Previous Pentagon chiefs at least waited to finish their reviews before axing the F/A-22. Rumsfeld did not.

He handed down his decision on Dec. 23 in revisions to the Fiscal 2006 defense budget, providing no explanation or analysis.

DOD was, at least in part, responding to pressures to reduce the deficit—$521 billion last year—and offset the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now running at about $6 billion per month. The speed and stealth of the F/A-22 cut, however, suggested other motives.

Analysts noted that Rumsfeld’s closest aides have for years sought to curtail or cancel the Raptor program, arguing it was a Cold War-era fighter built to battle a bygone Soviet enemy. Some speculated the aides used the budget pressure as a pretext for imposing their anti-Raptor views on the Air Force.

The service has not fielded a new air dominance fighter since the F-15 in 1974. The Eagle is probably still the world’s top operational fighter, but its edge is eroding. USAF says the F-15 can’t guarantee air superiority beyond 2010.

The F/A-22 is the centerpiece of the Air Force’s long-term plans. It combines stealthiness with supercruise and a highly advanced sensor system. The first combat squadron will stand up this year. The Air Force believes the F/A-22 is the key to air dominance.

Obviously, influential DOD officials think otherwise. As airmen see it, F/A-22 critics are making at least three basic mistakes.

  • Threats. As the Pentagon sees it, the US faces no “peer” competitor. Rumsfeld’s most recent strategic guidance to the services de-emphasizes “traditional” conventional war in favor of preparing for “irregular,” “catastrophic,” and “disruptive” forms of conflict. Such a planning shift devalues the contributions of big weapons such as the F/A-22 fighter.
  • However, say airmen, this is a mistake. They argue that the US must be ready to conduct successful operations over the spectrum of conflict, up to and including conventional war at the “high end.” They note that the QDR is not about today, but about the period 2015-20. Decisions made today will determine how well-prepared we are for potential threats such as China, which will have a greatly expanded economy and access to Russian military technology.
  • Capabilities. Critics disparage the Raptor as a mere “dogfighter.” While it may have been conceived as a pure air-to-air weapon, it is now far more than that. Modifications are turning it into a platform for precision attack, surveillance, electronic attack, and data collection for networked warfare. In fact, the F/A-22’s power to “kick in the door” to defeat anti-access weapons and forces in a distant theater is a key part of USAF’s developing concept of operations. The Raptor will be the only US aircraft capable of countering anti-access threats in all weather conditions, day or night. It will provide a vital capability for the joint force and is thus a national—rather than merely a service—program.
  • Required numbers. Some critics argue that USAF could get by with a “silver bullet” force—a relative handful of highly capable F/A-22s. To these analysts, a total of 180 Raptors would be more than sufficient to prevail in any combat scenario. True but irrelevant, say airmen, because that is not the basis for determining force structure. What is needed is a sufficient number of F/A-22s to maintain an adequate “rotation base” and keep the operational tempo of the force within bounds.

USAF says the minimum requirement is one F/A-22 squadron (24 combat-coded Raptors) for each of its 10 Air and Space Expeditionary Forces. That would enable USAF to forward-deploy, at all times, two F/A-22 squadrons without breaking rotation cycles. According to Air Force officials, this requires a fleet of 381 Raptors—more than twice the 180 fighters now in the plan.

The December surprise was unwelcome. USAF already endured a “procurement holiday” in the 1990s, when Washington harvested a post-Cold War “peace dividend.” Further delay of modernization would take a toll on the fighter fleet.

The latest move was all the more puzzling because there was an alternative to slashing the Raptor program. Gen. John P. Jumper, the Chief of Staff, said Dec. 14 that the service could defer some purchases of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters instead. The Pentagon rebuffed this idea.

What happens now? Air Force leaders plan to present a vigorous case for the F/A-22 in the QDR in hopes of reversing the cuts. The issue also moves to Congress, which must approve DOD’s changes. The outcome is uncertain. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said 180 is “a totally inadequate number” and vows to fight for more.

Rumsfeld once declared, in the context of Iraq, “You go to war with the Army you have,” not “the Army you might want or wish to have.” His remark was controversial, but correct and applicable to the Air Force. The fighter force we have is a great one, but the one we need a decade hence must be able to defeat advanced aircraft, radars, and missiles by a decisive margin—and do it in distant theaters with little or no warning or backup.

To make sure we have that force, we need to restore the F/A-22 program and get on with acquiring it in adequate numbers.