Air Force's F/A-22 is a Relic and a Loser

This letter originally appeared in the Jan. 28, 2005 edition of Bloomberg.com.

To the Editor:

Re: the article "Air Force to Seek Reverse of F/A-22 Cuts, Roche Says'' (Jan. 4):

The lingering misery of the F/A-22 should end now.

The aircraft the U.S. Air Force describes as the crown jewel of its future was originally designed in 1986 to defeat a new generation of fighters from the Soviet Union and to find and engage Soviet bombers and radar-controlled aircraft as they gathered over Warsaw Pact airspace to support an invasion of Western Europe.

Today, overblown rhetoric notwithstanding, the aircraft is a relic of the past, a budgetary nightmare, and a source of U.S. weakness, not strength.

Even if the Soviet Union had remained and if its super-fighters had materialized, the F/A-22 would be little help. Almost 20 years after its conception, the F-22 remains in development and undeployed to operational Air Force units. The one original parameter the aircraft exceeds most is cost – and that by a whopping 700 percent. (It was initially promised to cost $35 million per copy; today, it is pushing an astonishing $258 million – and climbing.)

Worse, the projected F/A-22 force has shrunk from 750 to 279, and more recently to 180 aircraft. That statistic and the F/A-22's technical complexity mean a force that can generate neither numbers nor presence over any battlefield larger than a postage stamp. While the Air Force touts the F/A-22's "stealthiness" against enemy sensors, its most prevalent real world stealth characteristic will be its unavailability in any heavily contested conflict.

In short, even against the threat for which the F/A-22 was intended, it is a loser.

Hyping the F/A-22

However, while the F/A-22's justification and mission -and its 1990s computers – have stood still, the rest of the world has moved on.

Al-Qaida, the Iraqi insurgents, and other known enemies don't even aspire to have an air force, and the last one who did, Saddam Hussein, didn't know how to use it.

In recognition that air-to-ground capability addresses current needs, the Air Force now hypes a bombing capacity for the same aircraft about which it once boasted "not a pound for air-to-ground."

The Air Force needs to revise more than its slogans to adjust to the real world.

Today, there are over $25 billion in unspent F/A-22 budget plans that should be redirected at defense programs that could do real harm to our enemies. The best place for the Air Force to start would be to improve and increase the aircraft that made a real a difference in the 1991 and 2003 wars against Iraq and that today gives daily aid and comfort to our soldiers and Marines fighting on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. That aircraft is the A-10 "Warthog," the cheap, ugly, slow, persistently available, day and night, close air support aircraft the Air Force never wanted in the first place but that today commands its begrudging respect.

Upgrade the A-10

Current plans to upgrade 240 A-10s remaining in active and reserve combat units at a leisurely pace should be accelerated. More importantly, the A-10 inventory should be expanded by refurbishing the 48 Warthogs now in storage in the "boneyard" at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base – before they are rendered unusable, just as about 100 were in recent years. Finally, a modernized A-10 should be developed and produced.

An expanded A-10 inventory will do more to support soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan than all the F/A-22s the Air Force ever dreamed of possessing.

With the billions still left over from a canceled F/A-22, the Air Force should modernize its aging F-15 and F-16 fighter-bomber inventories by buying more, and doing so in significant numbers – not the anemic buys sought by members of Congress from Missouri and Texas to appease Boeing and Lockheed and a few voters.

Instead of doing any of these things, the Pentagon has meekly leaked to the press a tentative plan to cancel the F/A-22 not now but in 2009. Between now and then, about 80 more will be bought for over $15 billion, making the total force of 180 irrelevant, ineffectual relics.

Rumsfeld is Mute

Worse, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is standing mutely by as his departing secretary of the Air Force, James Roche, and the sitting chief of staff of the Air Force, Gen. John Jumper, openly work with F/A-22 advocates to undo the deferred cancellation plan.

One of those advocates is Georgia Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss, who pledges to keep the production line in his state open, thereby keeping the pork in Georgia, and probably Chambliss' re-election coffers, well larded.

Our enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan have little to fear from the F/A-22, but they have learned the hard way what the A-10 can do to them. Buying more F/A-22s and letting the A-10 wither on the vine will embolden them and weaken us.

It's time to introduce Air Force acquisition leaders to the consequences of busted budgets and ignored ground combat realities. Chambliss and other porkers in Congress need to start thinking about expanding real warfare capabilities, not the waistlines of local manufacturers.

Most of all, the Pentagon needs a leader who can compel an uncooperative bureaucracy to provide our combat forces with what they need, rather than talk like a stentorian Hector but act like dithering Hamlet.

Winslow T. Wheeler
Visiting Senior Fellow,
Center for Defense Information
Washington, D.C. 
Author, The Wastrels of Defense (U.S. Naval Institute Press, Washington)

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

By: Winslow Wheeler, Director (2002-2014), Straus Military Reform Project, CDI at POGO

At the time of publication Mr. Wheeler's was the director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center For Defense Information at POGO.

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