Skip to Main Content

The F-22 Controversy, Part I: Arguments for Stopping Production

There is a burgeoning debate in the Senate over the 13-11 vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee to buy seven more F-22s for $1.75 billion (an apparently new and improved unit "flyaway" cost of $250 million each, not the Lockheed/U.S. Air Force advertised $143 million each).

The Levin-McCain amendment to undo the new F-22 acquisition is refreshingly upright and clear cut. It restores $1.250 billion in readiness-related spending that Lockheed, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and 12 other SASC senators thought should be raided from the Military Personnel and Operation and Maintenance accounts to pay for the seven F-22s. It also undoes a "management savings" of $500 million to pay for the rest of the F-22 cost—a savings that both Levin and McCain properly found unjustified; "bogus" would be a better word.

Everyone knows the F-22 is insanely expensive ($65 billion for 187 so far), but isn't it the super-fighter everyone in the Air Force, Lockheed and its paid for Capitol Hill offices (more on that later) describes?

Perhaps not. Please consider the piece below, written by myself and Pierre M. Sprey, one of the few people alive today who can honestly say he has participated in the design of effective combat aircraft, as demonstrated by multiple wars.

The piece was picked up last night by Colin Clark's DoD Buzz as "Stop the F-22 Now." It is also reproduced below.

Pierre Sprey and I are indebted to Colin for running the piece. But the exigencies of editing resulted in some points we believe useful to have hit the cutting room floor. Accordingly, I am including the full piece as initially written at the end of this message, with the DoD Buzz version below. It is perhaps prideful, but some readers may find the additional points to be of interest.

DoD Buzz
July 13, 2009


"Stop the F-22 Now"
by Winslow T. Wheeler and Pierre M. Sprey


The Senate should debate the F-22's fate this week . Sen. John McCain, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services committee, has pledged to lead the fight against the F-22, which the committee approved over the objections of McCain and Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the committee. Following is an op-ed by Winslow Wheeler and Pierre Sprey calling for an end to a plane they argue doesn't work nearly as well as claimed and is far too expensive.

Lawmakers beholden to Lockheed are leading the charge to overturn the Secretary of Defense's decision to stop producing the F-22. Gates and President Obama have threatened to veto the 2010 defense spending bill if it contains a single F-22 over the 187 authorized.

Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have already voted to overturn Gates' decision. The House wants to make a down payment on 12 more F-22s. The Senate wants to pay up front for seven more in 2010. The House of Representatives passed its version of the bill on June 25 by a vote of 389 to 22. Clearly, Obama and Gates have a long way to go to pocket the 145 or so votes they will need in the House to sustain a veto. The Senate should debate its bill this week. Obama and Gates will suffer a huge legislative defeat if the F-22 supporters win.

Instead of being such a close call, further production of F-22s ought to be laughed out of court. The F-22 is outrageously expensive. The 187 are costing just over $65 billion, about $350 million each.

Not a single F-22 has flown in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be foolish to deploy them since there is no enemy air force to fight against. To send F-22s as a bomber—at three times the operating cost of F-16s that are already bombing over ther—would be just another drag on the war effort.

Even more important is the question of whether the F-22 is a good fighter. The truth is that the F-22s weaken US air power. Study after study show that pilot skill dominates all other factors in winning or losing air battles. The F-22's maintenance costs have the Air Force to slash in-air pilot training. In the 1970s, fighter pilots were getting 20 to 30 hours a month of air combat training. Today, F-22 pilots get 10 to 12 hours. High tech theorists claim flying can be replaced by ground simulators. Experience teaches that simulators can be used for cockpit procedures training but, by misrepresenting in-air reality, they reinforce tactics that could get pilots killed in real combat.

The Air Force, Lockheed, and their congressional boosters tout the F-22 as the silver bullet of air combat. The F-22's so-called stealth may hurt more than it helps. In truth, against short wavelength radars, the F-22 is hard to detect only over a very narrow band of viewing angles. Worse, there are thousands of existing long range, long wavelength radars that can detect the F-22 from several hundred miles away at all angles. Believers in stealth's invisibility should ask the pilots of the two—not one, as commonly believed—stealthy F-117 bombers taken out of action by old Russian radar-directed defense systems in the 1999 Kosovo air war. Moreover, a new whistleblower scandal is presenting evidence that the F-22's stealth skin has failed to meet its stealth requirements because it has been badly fabricated and dishonestly tested.

The vaunted invincibility of the F-22 founders on two incurable flaws: First, the plane's so-called "low probability of intercept" radar may now be easily detected, thanks to the proliferation of spread spectrum technology in cell phones and laptops. That creates an environment where, if the F-22 pilot turns on his radar, he announces his presence over hundreds of miles. Even better for the enemy, the radar makes an unmistakable beacon for opposing missiles.

Second, when combat forces F-22 pilots to turn off radars, they'll find themselves forced into a close-in, maneuvering fight. Compromised by stealth and heavy radar electronics, the plane's agility, short range missiles, and guns are nothing special - as one of us observed at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada when an F-16 "shot down" an F-22 in exercises.

As for the plane's advertised ability to cruise supersonically the F-22's low fuel capacity (27% of takeoff weight, only two thirds of what's needed for combat-useful supersonic endurance in enemy airspace) reduces this to an air show trick. Why the big fuel shortfall? To make room for stealth technologies and radar electronics.

In summary, a vote for continuing F-22 production is a vote to decay pilots' skills, to deny them a truly great fighter, to shrink the number of pilots and planes we can field, and to reward Congress' unending appetite for pork. The new 2010 Defense Authorization bill should be vetoed if a single F-22 is added.

# # #

Winslow T. Wheeler, a former GOP congressional budget expert, is director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

Pierre M. Sprey helped bring to fruition the F-16; he also led the design team for the A-10.


The piece as originally drafted follows:

"Any Pro-Defense Senator Will Vote to Kill the F-22"

by Winslow Wheeler and Pierre Sprey


Democratic and Republican members of Congress beholden to Lockheed are leading the charge to overturn the Secretary of Defense's laudable decision to stop producing the F-22 fighter. Gates and President Obama have threatened to veto Congress' entire 2010 defense spending bill if it contains a single F-22 over the 187 now authorized. As Gates said about his original F-22 decision, the vote to sustain the President's veto of this bill should not be a close call. Sadly, Congress is making it a very close call. That is why our defenses are in the mess they are in.

Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have already voted to overturn Gates' decision. The House Committee wants to make a 2010 down payment to ensure 12 more F-22s in 2011. The Senate Committee wants to pay up front for 7 more in 2010—leaving unsaid how many more we'll have to pay for in 2011. The House of Representatives passed their version of the bill on June 25 by a vote of 389 to 22. Clearly, Obama and Gates have a long way to go to pocket the 145 or so votes they will need in the House to sustain a veto. The Senate will debate their version of the bill during the week of July 13. Should an amendment to support Gates and Obama by removing the seven F-22s now in the bill receive less than the thirty-four votes needed to sustain a veto—or if senators supporting the president's position count noses and decline to move their amendment for fear of losing—Obama and Gates will have suffered a huge legislative defeat. That portends a sad future indeed for their efforts to keep pork and other bad ideas out of the defense budget.

Instead of being such a close call, further production of F-22s ought to be laughed out of court. Consider the following:

The F-22 is outrageously expensive. The 187 now authorized are costing the nation just over $65 billion. That's almost $350 million for each one, counting all development and production costs.

Not a single F-22 has flown in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be foolish to deploy them. There is no enemy air force there. To send F-22s as yet another bomber—at what DOD data shows to be three times the operating cost of the F-16s that are already bombing too much over there—would be just another harmful drag on the real war effort.

Even more important is the question of whether the F-22 makes a good fighter, presumably against a competent enemy air force—if we are ever faced with one. The simple truth is that the F-22s make US air power weaker, not stronger.

Study after study—to say nothing of war itself—shows conclusively that pilot skill dominates all other factors in winning or losing air battles. Because of the F-22, the skill of our pilots has been seriously degraded. Due to its gigantic maintenance and support burden—over $3 million per fighter per year, again according to official DOD figures—the Air Force has slashed our in-air pilot training. In the 1970s, famously called the "hollow decade" because of low combat readiness, our fighter pilots were getting 20 to 30 hours a month of air combat training—half what the Israeli Air Force pilots found necessary to achieve their lopsided 15 to 1 victory ratio in 1973. Today, our F-22 pilots get an obviously inadequate 10 to 12 hours. High tech theorists claim flying training can be replaced by ground simulators. Experience teaches otherwise: simulators can be used for cockpit procedures training but, by misrepresenting in-air reality, they reinforce tactics that could get pilots killed in real combat.

Ignoring the combat-dominating human dimension, the Air Force, Lockheed, and their congressional boosters tout the F-22 as the magic silver bullet of air combat, a technological wonder weapon. It's likely to be the opposite.

The F-22's so-called "stealth" may hurt more than it helps. First of all, stealth imposes huge aerodynamic, weight and maintenance penalties, reducing both combat agility and numbers of fighters available in the air. The invisibility claimed is disingenuous. In truth, against small (that is, short wavelength) radars, the F-22 is hard to detect only over a very narrow band of possible viewing angles. Over the huge remaining span of viewing angles, it is very detectable. Worse, there are thousands of existing long range, long wavelength radars, particularly Russian and Chinese ones, that can detect the F-22 from several hundred miles away at all angles—simply because all long wavelength radars are immune to any kind of stealth shapings or coatings. Believers in stealth's cloak of invisibility should ask the pilots of the two—not one, as commonly believed—stealthy F-117 bombers taken out of action by antiquated Russian radar-directed defense systems in the 1999 Kosovo air war. Moreover, a new unfolding whistleblower scandal is presenting court evidence that the F-22's stealth skin has failed to meet its stealth requirements—limited as they are—because it has been badly fabricated and dishonestly tested.

Worse, the widely advertised 10:1 or even 30:1 kill ratios of the F-22 in Air Force-umpired mock air battles rest entirely on using its radar (without allowing enemy anti-radar measures) and on assigning wishfully inflated kill percentages to its radar missiles. Despite the Air Force's long standing dream, in every real war of the last 45 years, our radar-equipped fighters were simply unable to use beyond-visual-range radar missile shooting or, at best, fired off a handful of inconsequential pot-shots. These few actual firings produced kill rates far less impressive than the percentages the Air Force assigns in F-22 mock battles.

The vaunted invincibility of the F-22 founders on two incurable flaws:

First, the plane's so-called "low probability of intercept" radar may now be easily detected by simple, low cost electronics, thanks to the worldwide proliferation of spread spectrum technology in cell phones and laptops. That creates an environment where, if the F-22 pilot is foolish enough to turn on his radar, he announces his presence over hundreds of miles. Even better for the enemy, the radar makes an unmistakable beacon for home-on-radar missiles. Both the Russians and the Chinese specialize in - and sell - just such missiles. Despite that, our Air Force almost always bans these potentially devastating missiles and tactics from the F-22's mock battles, for reasons that are not hard to fathom.

Second, when actual combat forces our F-22 pilots to turn off their radars and forget the beyond-visual-range dream, they'll find themselves forced into a close-in, maneuvering fight. Compromised by the burden of complex stealth and heavy radar electronics in that dogfight regime, the plane's agility, short range missiles, and guns are nothing special - as one of us observed at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada when an F-16 "shot down" an F-22 in exercises.

As for the plane's advertised ability to cruise supersonically - indeed a desirable characteristic - unfortunately, the F-22's low fuel capacity (27 percent of takeoff weight, only two thirds of what's needed for combat-useful supersonic endurance in enemy airspace) reduces this to a brief airshow trick. Why the big fuel shortfall? Once again, to make room for combat-irrelevant tons of stealth technologies and radar electronics.

It's not as if it's technically hard to design and produce a truly great air-to-air fighter that can whip any other fighter in the world. The only hard part is enforcing the discipline needed to: 1) focus austerely on what has proven inescapably effective in the actual air combat our pilots have experienced and are likely to experience (as opposed to the imagined high tech air combat dreamed up by our arm chair theorists); 2) rigorously excise extraneous niceties and alluring but untested technologies; 3) build two competing combat-capable prototypes, then go with the winner of a brutally administered series of head-to-head dogfights and live weapons firings (even if the winner fails to evenly spread subcontracts across 40-plus states). The two most successful planes flying in today's Air Force were built just that way. There's no reason we can't do that again - and come up with a new, even better, world-beating fighter.

In summary, a vote for continuing F-22 production is a vote to decay our pilots' skills, to deny them a truly great fighter, to shrink the number of pilots and planes we can field, and to reward Congress' unending appetite for pork. Unquestionably, the new 2010 Defense Authorization bill should be vetoed if a single F-22 is added. Those members of Congress who place our nation's defenses first will support that veto.

Tags: F-35

Winslow Wheeler, Director, Straus Military Reform Project, Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight

By: Winslow Wheeler
Director, Straus Military Reform Project, CDI at POGO, POGO

Mr. Wheeler's areas of expertise include Congress, the Defense Budget, National Security, Pentagon Reform and Weapons Systems

Photograph of Pierre Sprey

By: Pierre Sprey

Pierre Sprey consulted for Grumman Aircraft's research department from 1958 to 1965, then joined Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's "Whiz Kids" in the Pentagon.

The goal of the Straus Military Reform Project is to secure far more effective military forces and much more ethical and professional military and civilian leadership at significantly lower budget levels.

We would like to thank Philip A. Straus Jr. and family for their generous support.

Leave A Comment

Nickname
Comment
Enter this word: Change