As Congress begins to take up the Obama administration's defense budget, one item not even under discussion needs to be considered. Events of the past 18 months have made clear that it's time to rethink the fate of the F-22 Raptor. The presumptions that led the Senate to cancel funding for this fighter have been turned upside down, as new threats have emerged and old ones have become clearer.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has promised that America's airpower needs will be served by the still-unfinished F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). But that airplane will be smaller, slower and less lethal than the F-22, and its future is becoming more cloudy with every new development delay. Most importantly, the F-35 simply was not designed to do the F-22's job, leaving America's global air dominance in doubt against emerging threats.
The reasons Mr. Gates gave for recommending that the F-22 be killed included the $250 million cost of each plane, the need to reorient the military to fight today's wars, the lack of any peer challengers, and the presumption that the quantity of F-35s would be equivalent to the quality of the F-22s. In July 2009, Congress agreed with Mr. Gates and voted to strip the program of funding. The result will be a force of 186 Raptors (one having crashed late last year), though of this rump fleet, only 130 or so will be combat- capable. Readiness, maintenance and scheduling demands will reduce the operational force to merely 30 or so F-22s globally available to throw into a fight at any given moment.
The numbers alone mean that the F-22 force is far from what is needed for any realistic major operational scenarios. Here are three other reasons that Congress should review its decision:
• The emergence of foreign challengers. Russia and China are steadily developing heavy, twin- engine aircraft with stealth capabilities. Based on their size and potential capabilities, the smaller, single-engine F-35 probably will not have the speed or power to compete.
The Chinese ostentatiously first test-flew their J-20 prototype last month during Mr. Gates's visit to Beijing. Western analysts are still debating the plane's capabilities. Some believe it will serve as a supersonic fighter-bomber, given its large size (more than 20% bigger than the F-22 itself). Whatever the ultimate capabilities of the J-20 or the Russian PAK-FA turn out to be, we can expect more surprises in their development. The U.S. government apparently did not know about two new Chinese nuclear submarine models until they were revealed on the Internet several years ago.
• Sophisticated air defenses are a growing threat to American fighters. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, among others, are developing and fielding integrated air-defense systems, including interlinked radar sites and advanced surface-to-air missiles such as the S-400. The lower operational ceiling of the F-35 (around 40,000 feet) and its subsonic cruising speed means it will be at much higher risk in attempting to penetrate such heavily defended airspace.
The F-22 was designed precisely to fight and survive in such environments-as attested by its 60,000-foot operational ceiling and supercruise (cruising at plus-mach speeds without afterburners) ability.
• F-35 delays and cost overruns. The JSF program has run into numerous delays and cost increases, with the unit price of each plane nearing $100 million. In early January, Mr. Gates put the F-35B program on hold for two years, as its vertical take-off-and-landing capabilities ran into significant development problems.
Many industry observers question whether the F-35 will reach initial operating capability before the end of this decade. And given the rising costs of the plane, the likelihood of further procurement cuts is very real, putting the F-35 potentially on the same death-spiral as the F-22.
Given our current fiscal environment, the only chance for Congress to restart the F-22 line is to find a budget-neutral solution. Hard questions must and should be asked if the overall F-35 buy is to be curtailed in favor of producing more F-22s.
Any numbers are speculative, but cutting 400 F-35As from the Air Force's projected total of 1,700 would leave a fleet of at least 1,300-more than enough to deal with most likely threats. This would free funds to build at least 150 more F-22s, bringing their numbers close to what the Air Force has long argued is needed to ensure a viable Raptor force. It would also provide U.S. military leaders with the "high-low" mix of F-22s' air superiority and F-35s' ground-attack superiority that was envisioned in the 1990s. Lawmakers should then demand an independent, comprehensive study of how much it would cost to keep the plane in production, perhaps at the rate of 10 per year.
No one suggests that this is an easy decision. Yet according to Mr. Gates, North Korea will likely be capable of fielding intercontinental ballistic missiles by 2016; China will soon have its own fleet of stealth fighter-bombers; and Iran may soon have nuclear weapons. The world is getting to be an even more dangerous place, and it is vital that we possess fighters that can survive any threat in the years ahead.