Requiem for a Heavyweight

Sept. 1, 2009

For a few weeks this summer, it appeared that Congress might extend the F-22 fighter program, despite Pentagon calls to kill it. Then came President Obama’s anti-Raptor offensive, featuring veto threats, arm-twisting, and more.

Fire and brimstone rained down on lawmakers supporting the use of $1.75 billion to sustain F-22 production. The Senate, duly cowed, voted July 21 to stop production. The House backed down on July 30. Congress quickly moved on to the task of finding $2 billion in “cash for clunkers” funding.

For F-22 backers, this is truly a time for gallows humor. The F-22 program is dead, stopped at only 187 fighters. With this editorial, we come to bury the Raptor, not praise it.

Interment of the departed, however, requires a postmortem, specifying cause of death. What was that cause? In Senate debate, the anti-F-22 speakers expended scores of thousands of words laying out their reasons, all preserved in the Congressional Record. It makes for confusing reading.

Take, for example, the most-cited reason for opposition: the Raptor’s alleged unaffordability, given “the economic crisis we are in” (Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., July 13). The F-22 was said to cost an exorbitant $350 million per copy (actually, each new one would cost $140 million). To hear Raptor foes tell it, a vote against the F-22 amounted to a vote for government rectitude.

It was a notion heavily retailed by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, the F-22’s principal bureaucratic foe.

Yet if we know anything for certain, it is that the F-22 kill didn’t reflect any new shift to fiscal discipline. Heavy stimulus spending, auto bailouts, and health care expansion are and will continue to be massive budget busters. In the words of a recent Wall Street Journal editorial: “Credit $1.75 billion in savings. … Only a couple of trillion more, and Mr. Obama will have a balanced budget.”

The $1.75 billion amounted to two-tenths of a percent of DOD’s budget. The most optimistic F-22 backers thought USAF might need, over several years, a max of $13 billion.

Also prominent were charges of “irrelevance” in current wars, an alleged defect that really got Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) lathered up. “The F-22,” fumed Reid, “has not flown a single mission over Iraq or Afghanistan—not one.” This, of course, was a patented Gates applause line.

Our response is: So what? The F-22 was built for air-to-air combat at supersonic speeds, unseen by radar, not for patrolling uncontested airspace in Southwest Asia. The F-22 is not needed there; it will be needed elsewhere. Or, do Senator Reid, Gates, and others really believe that all future wars will be fought against primitive, irregular foes

A different argument, also frequently heard, was that the Raptor is indeed vital, but that 187 are enough. The F-22 skeptics hailed a July 9 claim by Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman, that the number 187 had been validated as sufficient by a new “study.”

Were they surprised, then, when Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), an F-22 supporter, later revealed Cartwright was “amending” his remarks? The Pentagon conceded that there really was no real study of this matter, only some partial “work products” slapped together.

No statement received wider media coverage than this type: The Air Force “says it doesn’t want” any more Raptors (Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., July 21). The intended message was that corrupt, pork-barreling, jobs-protecting members of Congress were trying to cram an excessive number of these fighters down USAF’s throat.

Is that a fair claim? It is true that Michael B. Donley, the Secretary of the Air Force, and Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, USAF Chief of Staff, agreed with Gates’ decision to stop production at 187 fighters, but there is more to the story. The Chief has stated publicly that the “military requirement” is 243 F-22s—for a “moderate-risk” force. Something similar was said by another USAF leader, Gen. John D. W. Corley, commander of Air Combat Command. Corley stated in a letter to Chambliss that USAF needs from 250 to 381 F-22s, and that 187 provides only a “high-risk” force.

Neither general ever claimed USAF couldn’t use more of these kinds of fighters.

The Senate chamber rang out with a surprising number of claims that the F-22, to put it bluntly, was just not that great a fighter. The Pentagon leadership told the Senate that the triservice F-35 is “a half generation newer aircraft” and “more capable” in some areas. Obama himself, in the wake of the Senate vote, dismissed the F-22 as just one of many “outdated and unnecessary defense projects” sucking down tax dollars.

Is that logical? If the F-22 is so “outdated and unnecessary,” why has Congress barred its sale to our top allies—Japan, Israel, and Australia—but allows sale of the F-35, its alleged peer, to whoever wants to buy it? We intend no disparagement of the F-35, which will be a great fighter. We only mean to point out a commonsense explanation: The F-22, the most advanced fighter ever built, offers an enormous edge, and Washington is loath to risk the technological secrets of its true airpower heavyweight.

“If the President of the United States calls the F-22 ‘outdated and unnecessary,’” said a pro-Raptor official, “there is something very wrong with the information he is being provided.”

Indeed, the critics’ case—at least as it was presented in the Senate debate—does seem to us to have been based on exaggerations and false assumptions. Not a single one of the major assertions really stands up to scrutiny.

Clearly, though, the US will have to make do with 187 Raptors. In a piece starting on p. 40 of this issue, Executive Editor John A. Tirpak reports that the Air Force is planning to do just that, producing revised plans to embrace using each F-22 as a force multiplier for older F-15s and F-16s.

That’s a good move, but 187 F-22s is not the best possible return on a development investment of $32 billion spanning 20 years. The United States deserved a better outcome.