Washington Watch

March 1, 2009

Just Build It

In the first months of 2009, nearly half the Congress expressed a belief that President Barack Obama should certify the F-22 fighter as a critical defense program and keep it in production, at least until more up-to-date analysis verifies exactly how many more might be needed.

In separate January letters to Obama, bipartisan groups of 199 members of the House and 44 members of the Senate urged the new President to push past the Bush Administration’s goal of 183 Raptors. That number is too low to meet the threat, they asserted, and continuing production will keep up to 95,000 people employed who otherwise would soon see their jobs disappear.

Releasing many of those workers would also make the line closure almost irreversible, even if it should be later decided that not enough of the fighters were built, the legislators wrote.

“We urge your certification of continued production of the F-22,” the Senators said. They noted that the F-22 is the only fifth generation fighter “in full-rate production” and that after subtracting aircraft in test, maintenance, and training, “only about 100 F-22s would be immediately available for combat at any given time.” More than 30 air campaign studies over 15 years have validated a need for far more than 183 F-22s to replace more than 800 F-15A-D air superiority fighters, they said.

The “certification” to which they referred stems from 2008 legislation requiring the President to decide, by the first of this month, whether the F-22 should remain in production and whether funds Congress provided should be spent to buy further long-lead parts and materials—particularly titanium.

Without action, the long-lead activities of F-22 production will stop this month, and more and more workers certified to do the work will be released. Lockheed Martin, the builder of the F-22, has said that, after a period of months of inactivity, the bill to restart the production line would run into the billions of dollars of new costs.

Without Obama’s certification, “layoffs will begin as this critical supplier base shuts down, and it will quickly become expensive or perhaps impossible to reconstitute,” the Senators wrote.

“Some have suggested filling the remaining F-22 requirement with other aircraft, like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter,” wrote the Senators. However, the F-35 is designed for multirole strike missions and “not optimized for … air dominance” as is true of the F-22.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has frequently opined that he thinks the two airplanes are comparable, and that the F-35 can substitute for the F-22 in establishing air dominance. The Air Force firmly believes otherwise, though.

It’s the Threat, Stupid

The Senators pointed out that several “potential adversaries” have announced development of their own F-22-like aircraft and expect to be building them within five to 10 years.

“Additionally, sophisticated and highly lethal” air defense systems are proliferating worldwide which could demand that the US achieve control of the air “in multiple theaters simultaneously,” the lawmakers wrote.

In their letter, the Representatives concluded, “It is clear that such a lean F-22 fleet is not consistent with America’s national security interest.” The two letters, though not identical, sounded similar themes and cited the same numbers.

The House letter called the F-22 project a “model production line,” and noted that unit flyaway cost has dropped by 35 percent since full-rate production began.

Making an economic argument, the Senators said that the F-22 “annually provides over $12 billion of economic activity to the national economy,” and that over 25,000 direct jobs and an estimated 70,000 more indirectly result from the F-22. The program relies on more than 1,000 suppliers in 44 states, they said.

“As we face one of the most trying economic times in recent history, it is critical to preserve existing high-paying, specialized jobs that are critical to our nation’s defense,” the Senate letter read.

Extending F-22 production will buy time for the Pentagon to conduct “a more in-depth analysis” of how many of the fighters are needed, as DOD conducts its 2009 Quadrennial Defense Review, the lawmakers pointed out.

In their letter, the Representatives said, “With these points in mind—growing worldwide threats, substantiated requirements for larger numbers of F-22s, a high-performing production capability, and a vital industrial base that sustains high quality jobs—we urge you to expeditiously certify that continued production of the F-22 Raptor is in the economic and national security interest of the United States of America.”

Pentagon acquisition, technology, and logistics chief John J. Young Jr. charged late last fall that the F-22 has turned in lackluster performance and has failed to meet key performance parameters in both combat capability and maintenance. Since then, the Air Force has declined to provide numbers that would either back up or refute those claims.

However, in late January, Lockheed Martin officials told reporters that the F-22 has met all of its KPPs such as radar cross section, speed, turn rate, etc. Company officials also noted that the F-22 is not expected to live up to KPPs for maintenance until “maturity”—that is, after the fleet has amassed over 100,000 hours of flying time. That milestone won’t be reached until 2010, they said. Even so, they argued, the F-22 is turning in good reliability and maintainability for an aircraft so recently introduced.

The Chinese Copy

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, China is paying the Air Force a high compliment by using it as a model for its own air service.

According to the most recent Chinese defense White Paper, that country is busy transforming the People’s Liberation Army Air Force into a facsimile of USAF, boasting state-of-the-art technology and operating concepts, an overhauled system of professional military education, and enhanced “strategic” capabilities. The mimicry even extends to developing RED HORSE-like capabilities to quickly erect expeditionary airfields and installations.

According to the White Paper, released in January, the PLAAF places great importance on developing new types of fighters, air and anti-missile defense weapons, and command automation systems “to satisfy the strategic requirements of conducting both offensive and defensive operations.” It noted recent improvements in its air-to-air weaponry, precision guided attack munitions, upgrades to its electronics, and improvements to “the basic networks for intelligence and early warning, command and control, and communications.”

Throughout the Chinese military, the watchword has become “informationization”: the use of high-speed communication and networks to enhance the overall force structure. A key component will be cyber operations, which China hopes to use to level the playing field with other major militaries as it develops its conventional power.

For now, the PLAAF will rely on “third generation” aircraft and missiles as the backbone of its force, relying on second generation aircraft and missiles “as the supplement,” it said. However, its definition of what constitutes a “third generation” aircraft seems to differ from that widely used in the West. China’s new J-10 fighter—considered comparable to early F-16s—as well as Russian Su-27 Flanker variants, definitely falls into the category of “fourth generation” machines, and they will soon become the dominant types in the PLAAF. China has also stated elsewhere that it is pursuing fifth generation fighter types comparable to the F-22. While its new White Paper didn’t specify such an aircraft, it did note that China is building a defense industrial base with an eye toward “leapfrogging” current technologies.

The Chinese forces are also pursuing improvement in intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capabilities as well as power-projection forces such as bombers and aerial tankers.

The PLAAF “is working to accelerate its transition from territorial air defense to both offensive and defensive operations, and increase its capabilities for carrying out reconnaissance and early warning, air strikes, air and missile defense, and strategic projection, in an effort to build itself into a modernized strategic air force,” according to the document.

The paper boasted of new “high-caliber personnel” and officers with increasingly “interdisciplinary” or joint experience. It also noted new and continuing air force colleges for command, aviation, engineering, and radar, a kind of air force academy, seven pilot training colleges, and a school for noncommissioned officers. An air force “Military Professional University was established in 2008.”

While acknowledging its double-digit increases in military spending in recent years, China maintained that much of the increase has gone to troop pay and benefits, which it said still compare unfavorably with civilian pay, but are catching up fast.

The RED HORSE-like capability was called out in a paragraph on logistical development. The PLAAF seeks to “strengthen its logistical forces for rapid construction of air defense projects, bomb elimination at and repair of airfields which have suffered attack.” It’s also seeking a better system to store and rapidly deliver critical military supplies. Toward that end, it’s seeking to reduce the size of its ground support gear and make it “more versatile in function and fitter for field operations.”

The comment about airfield repair was noteworthy in that China has been putting the majority of its new combat aircraft in a mainland arc facing Taiwan, and these airfields would be subject to counterattack in any action involving Taiwan.

Although it did not elaborate, the PLAAF also has advanced its capabilities in electronic countermeasures and “chemical defense.”

Regarding Taiwan, the White Paper seemed to relax some of China’s recent bellicose talk about what it considers the breakaway province. It said that “the situation across the Taiwan Straits has taken a significantly positive turn,” and that efforts to push for Taiwanese independence have “been thwarted.”

Internalized Conflict

Taiwan still ranks among three specific security threats called out in the White Paper—the other two being independence movements in Tibet and east Turkistan. China has had to deal with “disruption and sabotage by separatist and hostile forces from the inside,” even as it faces “strategic maneuvers and containment from the outside.”

China also upbraided the US for continuing to supply Taiwan with military equipment and support “in violation of the principles established in the three Sino-US joint communiques, causing serious harm to Sino-US relations.” Elsewhere in the paper, though, it commended efforts at military exchanges with the US and other countries.

The White Paper extolled China’s determination to make a “peaceful” rise to military power that matches its economic clout, and noted that competition for resources represents a likely friction point with other powers in the future, as are “hot spots” with the potential to draw major peers into conflict.

The paper also noted with seeming trepidation the rise of “new emerging developing powers,” which it left unnamed. Taken together with a growing multipolarity in the world, there is “a profound readjustment brewing in the international system.”

Still, given the world economic and political situation, the White Paper authors judge that factors are at work which contain militarism, and that there is a “willingness to cooperate” among major powers that are “keeping low the risk of worldwide, all-out, and large-scale wars for a relatively long period of time.”