This is a sensitive moment for the F/A-22 Raptor. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget recently ordered Pentagon officials to take a hard new look at USAF’s premier fighter, now entering operational testing. The result conceivably could be curtailment of the program, or worse.
OMB’s questions sounded ominous. Does the Raptor have true “transformational value” or is it “merely another step” in a long evolution of fighters? Is the requirement “still relevant”? Are there “alternatives”? There have been six previous Raptor reviews. Each time, the Air Force was able to make a strong case for the fighter, but this time could be different.
Some believe OMB schemed with the F/A-22’s critics in the Pentagon to stack the deck against the fighter. They observe that USAF won’t be allowed to take part in the review and can only answer questions when asked.
The study will probably wind up this summer. We can expect to hear a number of plausible-sounding reasons for why it would be OK to decimate the F/A-22 program. Those arguments will either ignore or fudge certain facts, presented here for handy future reference.
The F/A-22 has been conceived by the world’s foremost practitioner of airpower, the United States Air Force, which has unequivocally stated that the F/A-22 is key to air superiority in future combat. USAF’s credentials are impeccable; no American ground forces have suffered enemy air attack since 1953.
The airplane has bounced back from recent problems and is performing well. (See “The F/A-22 Force Forms Up” on p. 34.) USAF expects the F/A-22 to go operational by December 2005.
Today’s front-line fighter, the F-15 Eagle, is physically wearing out. It entered service in 1975 and is based upon 30-year-old technology. The F-15 fleet, with an average aircraft age of 17 years, is costly to maintain, operates under flight restrictions, and must be replaced.
As the F-15 cycles out, the Raptor will be the only plausible successor. Even a radically upgraded F-15 cannot be made stealthy in any useful way. The stealthy F-35 fighter is often held out as an alternative, but it is not optimized for air combat and would have to be substantially redesigned, at great cost.
Modern foreign fighters and “double-digit” air defense systems now on the export market have caught up with the F-15 in capability. Without the F/A-22, the Air Force will gradually lose its ability to guarantee control of the skies. This is perilous for an expeditionary Air Force that fights on someone else’s turf.
Though often derided as a mere “dogfighter,” the F/A-22 is expected to have a potent multirole capability—a fact largely unappreciated by critics. A stealthy F/A-22 will provide not only air-to-air combat prowess but also precision attack and defense suppression capabilities. The F/A-22 is the only fighter able to autonomously counter anti-access threats on Day 1 of a war and thereby open the way for other US forces.
The F/A-22 already has suffered a drastic reduction from the original production goal of 750 fighters. The latest officially stated USAF plan called for a force of 339 F/A-22s. That figure, set in the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, had no relationship to combat requirements whatsoever. It was determined by budget needs. More recent pressures have pushed the number down to about 300 or fewer fighters.
The 339-airplane force, which critics want to whittle further, is small by any standard. For example, USAF bought roughly 1,100 F-15s and 2,200 F-16s. According to USAF, 339 Raptors would yield, on any given day, only 214 combat-coded aircraft. That works out to fewer than nine full (24-airplane) squadrons.
Nine squadrons won’t cover requirements. After the 1997 QDR, USAF organized itself into 10 air and space expeditionary forces, or AEFs. USAF could not provide even one full F/A-22 squadron per AEF. Getting to one squadron per AEF requires a fleet of 381 F/A-22s. Officials say having two squadrons per AEF would take a total inventory of 762 F/A-22s.
The Raptor doesn’t consume a huge portion of the budget. At its peak, the F/A-22 program would require less than six percent of the Air Force budget, less than two percent of the Defense Department budget, and one-quarter of one percent of the federal budget. This is in line with earlier periods of fighter modernization.
Most development money has already been spent and therefore is a “sunk cost.” USAF is poised to capitalize on the expenditure with serial production of F/A-22s. Stopping or limiting the process now would deprive the US of a full return on its investment.
Some critics say the Raptor should be de-emphasized in favor of future unmanned combat air vehicles and space-based systems. That position is not favored by most defense professionals. In a July 22, 1999, pro-F/A-22 letter to Congress, seven former Secretaries of Defense argued thus: “It is not enough to say that something better may be available in the future. Something better is always available in the future. Serious threats to American air superiority may arise sooner, and the nation’s security cannot tolerate a loss of command of the air. Congress and the Administration must focus on this fundamental reality and fully fund the nation’s only truly stealthy air superiority fighter.” One of the seven signatories was Donald Rumsfeld.