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Analysis

More Fuel for the F-22

Since the F-22 is such a hot item for discussion, we love posting about it. However, we decided to visit one of the less frequent arguments for the Raptor—the average age of US fighters. Here's what Bill Arkin wrote for the Washington Post back in '02:

The Air Force is also making other arguments. Perhaps the most compelling is contained in its October 21 "Paths to the Future" briefing, which decries the age of the overall U.S. aircraft fleet. According to the briefing, though the objective of average U.S. fighter jet is 12.5 years old, Air Force planes currently average 15 years in age.

But this is the territory of lies, damn lies, and statistics. The brief posits that the only way that the Air Force can achieve its goals for reducing the average age of its fleet (to 12.2 years by 2030) is to purchase 762 F-22's. This argument depends on a bit of sleight of hand. Up to now, the assumption has been that the Air Force would buy more than 1,700 F-35's. By quietly assuming it will only buy 956 F-35's, the Air Force makes the purchase of more F/A-22s seem more urgent than it really is.

On the issue of fleet age, one retired Air Force senior officer said, "I guess it's an argument."

"But if you really want to do something about your average airframe age, start buying block 60 F-16's [a new production more capable model of the aircraft] tomorrow. Trying to fix the problem with a high-end fighter is kind of crazy. It prices the Air Force out of existence."

Now that even the Pentagon plans on purchasing even fewer Raptors (179) because of their prohibitive cost, the argument that a Raptor buy will lower the average age is more specious.

One possible answer to the numbers problem would be to cut back on a few F/A-22 buys and spend the money instead on upgraded Boeing F-15K's. South Korea is buying 40 F-15 "K" models for $3.6 billion, or about $90 million per aircraft, and last summer, Senator Kit Bond, R-MO, pressed to free $120 million in funding to purchase two F-15's for the U.S. Air Force. That would keep the F-15 assembly line open until at least 2008, according to Bond. What that means is that for the price of one F/A-22—$345 million—the Air Force could purchase four or five F-15's, depending on the negotiated price.

Many pilots still say the F-15 is likely the best operational fighter in the world, and will be relevant for decades to come. Although the F/A-22 will feature stealth and supercruise, the new upgraded F-15 avionics is a preview of the complex avionics to be employed by the F/A-22 and Joint Strike Fighter. The F-15 is a multi-role fighter (the F/A-22 has yet to be operationally tested for air-to-ground capabilities) that can carry a variety of weapons for low and medium altitude precision strike missions during day, at night, or even in bad weather. The F-15K also features the newest combat radar, the Raytheon AN/APG-63(v)1, which incorporates air-to-air and air-to-ground modes and also adds new capabilities for ground moving target tract, sea surface search/track, and enhanced high-resolution ground mapping.