The F-22: Expensive, Irrelevant and Counterproductive

"The F-22: Expensive, irrelevant and counterproductive" was first published by the Fort Forth Star-Telegram on Jan. 27, 2008.

The F-22: expensive, irrelevant and counterproductive


On Dec. 12, the Air Force announced with considerable fanfare at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia that its F-22 fighter had reached "full operational capability." Air Combat Command commander Gen. John Corley called it a "key milestone."

Brimming with pride, a spokesman for the manufacturer, Lockheed, stated: "The F-22 is ready for world-wide operations"—and then added, "... should it be called upon."

His afterthought makes the point: There are, of course, two wars going on, and the F-22 has yet to fly a single sortie over the skies of Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor has the Air Force announced any intention of sending the F-22 to either theater.

The Air Force is quite right to keep the F-22 as far as possible from either conflict. The airplane is irrelevant to both, and were it to appear in those skies, it almost certainly would set U.S. and allied forces back.

Not only would it impose an unwanted burden on the already overstretched support forces in the region, but its primary mission—shooting down enemy aircraft—has no meaning in 21st-century warfare. Al Qaeda and the Taliban have no air force, nor do they want one.

Although the F-22 could carry two bombs to attack ground targets, that capability is so modest that our opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan might not even notice. It also would be ungracious to compare the F-22 to the ridiculously cheap, simple, and quite old A-10 close-air-support aircraft that has been operating in both wars—and even more ungracious to point out that each A-10 can deliver more than 10 times that load.

Destroying from the air enemy tactical units directly on the battlefield is an essential part of modern warfare—a mission that the Air Force was forced to embrace reluctantly when it developed the low- and slow-flying A-10, its first and only purpose-built close-air-support aircraft. Data from Afghanistan indicate that U.S. and allied forces might have killed more innocent civilians than the enemy has in the past year, and from Iraq we read report after report of civilians killed as a result of U.S. action. A major part of those "collateral" civilian casualties come from air attacks from aircraft flying too fast and too high to know and positively identify exactly what they are guiding their munitions to.

In a form of conflict in which winning over the civilian population is key to success, F-22 participation—along with that of other high-flying, high-speed aircraft—may be much worse than irrelevant.

Corley and other F-22 advocates would leap to argue that in its intended role—shooting down enemy fighters—it is unsurpassed. In fact, the airplane's many advocates seek to expand the F-22 buy beyond 2009, when current production is scheduled to end.

Let's pretend for the moment that there exists, or will soon, an enemy air force for which the F-22 would be relevant. How, then, could the F-22 help?

As an individual performer in real-world air-to-air combat, the F-22 is a huge disappointment. The Air Force vociferously disagrees—based on its untested-by-combat hypothesis that air wars can be fought and won by long-range, radar-controlled missiles fired at enemies you cannot see or reliably identify. If ever the F-22 finds itself in an air war against a serious opponent, all of us will find out who is right.

Three issues matter here:

Force size—The U.S. Air Force initially decided that to fight any serious opposing air force would require 750 F-22s. For development and procurement, Congress is providing $65.3 billion—a huge sum. However, because no stakeholder was interested in exercising discipline over the design, weight and cost of each F-22, that $65.3 billion will buy only 184 aircraft. Given the need to maintain a training base in the U.S., and considering the demonstrated daily sortie rate of similarly complex aircraft already in our inventory, the Air Force will be lucky to be able to fly 60 deployed F-22s per day at the start of a major conflict overseas.

That number would shrink as inevitable combat attrition and maintenance down-time take their toll. But even that generously estimated initial 60 sorties per day would not be a meaningful force against the major threat air force that the F-22 advocates hypothesize to make the F-22 relevant.

Pilot skill—We can expect that same tiny F-22 force to attrite all too rapidly in combat because the Air Force funds only 10 to 12 hours of flight training for F-22 pilots per month. That amount of realistic training is completely inadequate. At the height of their prowess in the 1970s, the Israelis gave their fighter pilots 40 to 50 hours of flight training per month.

The history of air warfare shows that the most important determinant of who wins an aerial dogfight is pilot skill, not aircraft performance. Because they have raided pilot training accounts to feed increasingly voracious procurement programs (such as the F-22), Congress and the Air Force have virtually guaranteed high pilot losses in any hypothesized, large-scale air-to-air war.

When we buy ultra-expensive fighters such as the F-22 that gobble up already scarce training and support funds, we make our own pilots more vulnerable. If the advocates of more first-line fighters for the U.S. were serious about winning air wars and saving pilots' lives, they would double (and then triple) the amount of money available for pilot flight training before spending a penny on new aircraft. Instead, Congress cut Air Force training accounts in the new Department of Defense Appropriations Act by $400 million.

Cost—The current plan is to buy 184 F-22s for $65.3 billion, or $354.9 million per aircraft. The Air Force contends that such a calculation is unfair; it distributes the cost of all testing and development—thus far—equally to every aircraft.

The Air Force contends that a more meaningful calculation for a prospective purchase is what it calls "flyaway" cost, which considers the development cost to have been sunk and that the only cost that should count now is the "cost to go." That cost, the Air Force contends in an October "fact sheet" on the F-22, is a mere $159.9 million per fighter.

Even at the Air Force's advertised price, the F-22 remains history's most expensive fighter aircraft. Considering the tiny inventory and reduced pilot training that the unprecedented cost implies, it's still no bargain.

The Air Force has failed to reach a point in F-22 production where it can be bought more efficiently. There is no "bargain" in going beyond the 184 that the taxpayers have already paid for.

The most telling characteristic that Lockheed and the Air Force are pushing to acquire additional F-22s is demonstrated in recent newspaper articles and advertisements. Nowhere do these items talk about a dangerous threat that makes more F-22s mandatory. Instead, they address how money for additional F-22s would be spent for defense corporations and jobs in more than 40 states.

Perhaps these articles and advertisements really have it right: Congress' lust for pork, and the perverted thinking that jobs and profits (not the threat) should drive defense spending, will determine the size of the F-22 fleet.

Not so fast...

Deputy Editorial Page Editor J.R. Labbe, writing Jan. 20, took a sharply contrasting viewpoint, arguing that the "F-22, with its speed, maneuverability and stealth ... is the ideal first-day fighter against enemy air forces. It blows the screens off the porch and kicks down the doors on Day 1 to make sure that nothing jumps up to contest air superiority."

She noted the argument that the Raptor is an aircraft for yesterday's wars but asserted that "in the zeal to respond to the tactics of today's enemy, the United States can't be too quick to dismiss the potential for a well-funded nation-state to turn into tomorrow's adversary."

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