The dogfight over the F-22A Raptor

Although it has yet to see combat in the air, the F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter is the object of an intense dogfight on Capitol Hill. The debate has made for some strange bedfellows. On one side, there are the antis – the Pentagon, Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin and Sen. John McCain among them – who want to wrap the program up and shut down the production line. One the other, the pros – Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Sen. Chris Dodd and the Air Force Association – who want to see more of the advanced fighters built.

The Raptor is beyond impressive:

The F-22, which entered service three years ago, blends key technologies that formerly existed only separately on other aircraft – or not at all. Its stealthiness will make trigger-happy combatants shoot at birds. It has agility, air-to-air combat abilities and penetrability far beyond that of the F-15 Eagle which entered service 33 years ago. It cruises at Mach-plus speeds without using fuel-guzzling afterburners.

No other fighter on the planet can touch it. So what’s the problem?

The advanced fighter has plenty of issues, if you listen to its critics. They say the Raptor costs too much. The aircraft’s supporters say that argument is a straw man:

Originally the Air Force requested up to 762, but that was progressively cut to 648, 442, 339, then 277 before the current 203, of which 134 have been built.

A major criticism of the Raptor is the cost – about $339 million per aircraft. But much of this reflects a wisely added ground attack role and a sneaky but common ruse used to cut weapon procurements. Technology development costs are fixed. So each time an order is reduced, per-unit prices go up. Critics slashed the F-22 order, and then cited the “stunning” per-unit cost to slash away again.

This game has played out with one weapon system after another, helping explain why an initial plan for acquiring 132 B-2 Spirit bombers ended with a pitiful purchase of 21. But the current per-unit cost for each additional F-22 is around $136 million, according to the Air Force.

Even at $136 million, the F-22 is not cheap. Some have suggested building more of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters instead of Raptors, but the two aircraft were designed for different missions. The F-22 is an air superiority fighter, designed to replace the F-15. The F-35, on the other hand, was conceived as a multi-role fighter, and its mission depends on the version and branch of service :

USAF: F-35A air-to-ground strike aircraft, replacing F-16 and A-10, complementing F-22 (1763aircraft);

USMC: F-35B – STOVL strike fighter to replace F/A-18B/C and AV-8B (480 aircraft);

UK Royal Navy: F-35C – STOVL strike fighter to replace Sea Harriers (60 aircraft);

US Navy: F-35C – first-day-of-war strike fighter to replace F/A-18B/C and A-6, complementing the F/A-18E/F (480 aircraft)

Also, the F-35 suffers from its own version of sticker shock. According to a 2007 GAO report:

Total projected acquisition costs have increased by $31.6 billion since 2004. The program has confronted delays in several “key events,” including the start of the flight test program, delivery of the first production representative development aircraft and testing of critical mission systems.

The average cost per airplane, the report said, has risen from $82 million to almost $95 million. That figure is sharply at odds with the government projections, which ranges from $47 million to $60 million, depending on the variant.

Others have proposed that instead of producing more Raptors, we should simply keep flying the F-15. But that option is not without a downside:

If necessary, the Air Force says it will try to fill the F-22 shortage by keeping F-15s flying to 2025. It won’t work. Even eight years ago, “some foreign aircraft we’ve been able to test, our best pilots flying their airplanes [from other countries] beat our pilots flying our airplanes every time,” then-Air Force chief of staff Gen. John Jumper told Congress.

Two years earlier, the independent Federation of American Scientists (FAS) noted that the Russian Sukhoi Flanker Su-27, which entered service eight years after the Eagle, “leveled the playing field” with the F-15. Su-27s, both Russian-built and Chinese-pirated copies, are now in arsenals around the world.

Nor are enemy fighters our only worry. Russian surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) have improved dramatically in recent years. The country’s S-300 system is “one of the most lethal, if not the most lethal, all-altitude area defense,” noted the International Strategy and Assessment Service, a Virginia-based think tank, three years ago. China also has the S-300 and the Russians announced in December they’ll soon sell units to Iran…

“Only the F-22 can survive in airspace defended by increasingly capable surface-to-air missiles,” declared Air Force Association President Mike Dunn in December.

Another criticism leveled at the Raptor is that it is too costly to maintain. The Washington Post, in an article highly critical of the F-22, reported:

The United States’ top fighter jet, the Lockheed Martin F-22, has recently required more than 30 hours of maintenance for every hour in the skies, pushing its hourly cost of flying to more than $44,000, a far higher figure than for the warplane it replaces, confidential Pentagon test results show.

The aircraft’s radar-absorbing metallic skin is the principal cause of its maintenance troubles, with unexpected shortcomings — such as vulnerability to rain and other abrasion — challenging Air Force and contractor technicians since the mid-1990s, according to Pentagon officials, internal documents and a former engineer.

The Air Force Association responded to the Washington Post’s criticisms by issuing a rebuttal fact sheet:

Assertion: The airplane is proving very expensive to operate with a cost per flying hour far higher than for the warplane it replaces, the F-15.

Facts: USAF data shows that in 2008 the F-22 costs $44K per flying hour and the F-15 costs $30K per flying hour. But it is important to recognize the F-22 flight hour costs include base standup and other one-time costs associated with deploying a new weapon system. The F-15 is mature and does not have these same non-recurring costs. A more valid comparison is variable cost per flying hour, which for the F-22 in 2008 was $19K while for the F-15 was $17K.

Assertion: The aircraft’s radar-absorbing metallic skin is the principal cause of its maintenance troubles, with unexpected shortcomings.

Fact: Stealth is a breakthrough system capability and it requires regular maintenance, just like electronics or hydraulics. The skin of the F-22 is a part of the stealth capability and it requires routine maintenance. About one-third of the F-22’s current maintenance activity is associated with the stealth system, including the skin. It is important to recognize the F-22 currently meets or exceeds its maintenance requirements, and the operational capability of the F-22 is outstanding, in part due to its stealth system.

Assertion: The F-22 is vulnerable to rain and other elements due to its stealthy skin.

Facts: The F-22 is an all-weather fighter and rain is not an issue. The F-22 is currently based and operating in the harshest climates in the world ranging from the desert in Nevada and California, to extreme cold in Alaska, and rain/humidity in Florida, Okinawa and Guam. In all of these environments the F-22 has performed extremely well.

The Raptor’s supporters argue that 187 units of the aircraft are not enough:

Strategically, 187 F-22 Raptors simply isn’t an adequate number for a future war against China and/or Russia, and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), also made by Lockheed Martin, simply doesn’t have the Raptor’s air-to-air combat capability, so it can’t fulfill the same air-superiority role against the latest Russian fighters, let alone their Gen-5 fighters that are currently either under development or on the drawing board–and Russia likes to export their fighters. DefenseReview would therefore feel much more comfortable with a quiver of at least 1,000 Raptors–preferably half of them in two-seat “Super Raptor” form–for a war against the Dragon and/or the Bear. Both countries (China and Russia) are currently developing low-observable, supermaneuvarable 5th Generation fighter aircraft, and Russia’s latest 4th-Gen. Sukhoi and MiG aircraft currently being exported to other countries are arguably superior to our latest F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft in a number of aspects.

The plane’s critics answer that argument by saying that China is not likely to be a threat to the U.S. for some time to come, and Russian 4th Gen. fighters are overrated. If the Russians and the Chinese were not so willing and even eager to export their fighters, the threat argument would hold water. But the opposite has been the case. The problem is not that the Russians export their Su-27 (as the Su-30M), it’s who they are willing to sell it to. They have provided Venezuela with an admittedly few of the aircraft, but what’s to keep the Russians from letting Iran have them? There was a report in The Jerusalem Post in 2007 that just such a deal was in the works, but Sukhoi officials flatly denied it. Still, we don’t know what Putin might do depending on the situation.

But the Su-27 and Su-30 are not the future of the Russian Air Force. Sukhoi is developing its own fifth generation fighter to counter the F-22. The T-50 PAK FA is intended to replace the Su-27 and the MiG-29. Will they produce more than 187 of them? The Russian Air Force has 200 MiG29s and twice that many Su-27s in service,so the math is not hard to do to answer that question.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S. Senate, it’s not hard to understand why Chambliss and Dodd want more Raptors to be built. The Lockheed Martin plant where F-22s are assembled is located in Chambliss’ home state of Georgia, and the Pratt & Whitney facility which builds the Raptor’s engines is in Dodd’s Ohio. Chambliss and Georgia’s other Senator Johnny Isakson wrote an AJC op-ed in defense of the fighter. The Raptor program means jobs, of course, and in an economy that is shedding jobs like a Golden Retriever sheds fur in August, jobs are critical. It’s easy to understand their concern. It’s not just their states that will be affected if F-22 production is allowed to cease. Parts of the fighter are made in 40 of the nation’s states,.

But even some of the fighter’s defenders agree that is not a valid reason to continue producing the F-22. The fighter should be a weapons program, not a jobs program. The Heritage Foundation bases its argument for building more Raptors on what it calls “a growing air power fighter gap” and says the need for the advanced fighter is based strictly on the issue of defense:

Congress and the Pentagon should carefully examine the inherent capabilities and qualities of each model of fighter to verify that it can fulfill these requirements and defeat the technological challenges that may be posed by future challengers.

Congress must ensure that the U.S. military maintains both its technological edge and adequate numbers of aircraft to maintain U.S. air superiority well into the 21st century.

Meanwhile, the Congressional dogfight continues over the F-22:

“The House added $369 million for advanced procurement of 12 aircraft in FY2011. The Senate, last week, added $1.75 billion to buy seven aircraft, effectively providing all funding up front for the new aircraft, unlike the House, which leaves more budget wiggle room.”

President Obama has threatened to veto his own defense bill if it is presented to him with funding for any continuation of the Raptor program included. He has characterized any further spending on the program as “wasteful.” The way the president has thrown money away, he is perhaps not the best Washington figure to make that argument. But then neither is John McCain, who interrupted his presidential campaign to go to Capitol Hill to help save the Porkubus. Perhaps these two guys should just shut up and let Gates do the talking.

– JP