The Air Force tries to save a fighter plane that's never seen combat.

Military analysis.
Feb. 24 2009 7:11 PM

Aerial Combat

The Air Force tries to save a fighter plane that's never seen battle.

F-22A Raptor. Click image to expand.
F-22A Raptor

In the next few weeks, on into the spring and beyond, the U.S. Air Force is likely to wage one of the most ferocious battles it has seen in decades, a fight that many of its generals regard as a life-or-death struggle—a war to save the F-22 Raptor fighter plane.

The skirmishes began a little more than a year ago, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that he was halting the plane's production. The nation had already bought 187 of them, at a total cost of $65 billion (nearly $350 million apiece), and that was more than enough.

Exhibit A was the plane's own combat record—or, rather, its lack of one. Not a single Air Force commander has sent a single F-22 into harm's way in any of the wars the United States has fought these past few years. Designed during the Cold War for air-to-air combat against the Soviet air force over the battlefield of Europe, the plane seems ill-suited—either overdesigned or simply useless—for any wars we're likely to fight in the coming decade or so.

But the Air Force brass is dominated by fighter pilots who still see air-to-air combat as the service's main mission; they took Gates' declaration as fighting words, and they fought back. They wanted 381 F-22s, and a couple of high-ranking officers told industry journals that they would continue to demand 381. The secretary's decision, they said, was "wrong."

Gen. Norton Schwartz, recently named the Air Force chief of staff, has reportedly scaled back the request, saying he would settle for an additional 60 planes—bringing the total to 247—to be purchased over the next three years. Schwartz may be sincere; he is the first chief in the Air Force's 62-year history who has never been a combat pilot. (He rose through the ranks in special-ops, flying cargo-transport planes.) *  Since the plane has long been produced at a rate of 20 per year, however, many skeptics—and several Air Force officers—see the chief's offer not as a compromise but as a foot in the door.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin, the plane's main contractor, has threatened to start shutting down production—and laying off workers—on March 1 unless the Obama administration commits to buying more planes. (One senior Pentagon official says this deadline is a bluff. In any case, though President Obama will issue the fiscal year 2010 budget on Feb. 26, the document will state only the "top-line" numbers for each department; the details—not just for the F-22, but for all programs, defense and otherwise—won't be released, or in many cases decided, until April.)

The economic argument stands as the F-22's last best hope. When the plane went into development in the 1980s, the Air Force was careful to spread around the contracts and subcontracts to as many congressional districts, to build as much political support for the plane, as possible. As a result, 1,150 firms in 46 states are involved in building or maintaining the F-22.

This has been a time-honored practice in big-ticket weapons procurement as far back as the late 1950s, when the Army's Nike-Zeus missile-defense system came under attack—from Congress, White House scientists, and senior officials in the Pentagon—and the Army fought back by spreading out the program's subcontracts to 37 states. (When John Kennedy was elected president, his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, killed the program anyway—at least for a while.)

"Saving jobs" has long been the most effective—often it's the only honest—argument for keeping a weapons program alive. Given the massive federal spending in President Obama's economic stimulus package, it might work for the F-22 in Congress, if not in the executive branch.

But the president has urged the nation's mayors and governors not to waste the bag of money that they'll soon be handed, and Congress should heed the same message.

For strictly on the merits, there is only a raggedy case to keep buying more F-22s.

The F-22 was developed in the 1980s as one of several aircraft—the B-2 bomber and F-117 attack plane were others—to incorporate "stealth" technology: flat, rounded surfaces and special materials that together made the plane all but invisible to radar.

The F-117 saw action in the 1991 Gulf War and in Kosovo, but its stealthiness played only a limited, if important, role. In Kosovo, Serbian air-defense crews shot down one F-117 after calibrating their radar systems to peer through the plane's "stealth features."*

The B-2 was originally designed as a nuclear bomber—a stealthy follow-on to the B-1—but the Cold War was over by the time it entered the fleet, so it has spent most of its combat hours dropping conventional "smart bombs" from altitudes too high to be reached by anti-air defenses in any case.

One lesson learned from the wars of the last two decades is that U.S. combat planes are very hard to shoot down, whether they have stealth technology or not. This is due in part to the radar gear in even the older planes, in part to the tactical skills of the pilots, and in part to the mediocrity of our enemies.

But what if our planes keep getting older and our enemies get better? Even the F-22's advocates concede that there'd be no need for this aircraft if all our future foes were the likes of Afghanistan or Iraq. It's easy to control the skies—so that helicopters can strafe, planes can drop smart bombs, and our troops can roam the terrain without fear of attacks from the air—when the enemy has a lousy or nonexistent air force.

The main scenario justifying the F-22 is a war against China or a resurgent Russia. True, neither country has much of an air force now, but in a decade they might; and if war broke out under those conditions, "air superiority" would be much harder to achieve.

Some contend that we're in bad shape right now. In the "Cope India" air-combat exercises of 2004, American pilots in F-15Cs—the most sophisticated U.S. fighter plane of the day—went up against Indian pilots in much older French and Russian jets and lost 90 percent of the time. Air Force magazine reported on the results at the time and concluded that the F-15s were aging a lot more drastically than anyone had assumed and that we therefore needed the F-22s—and a lot of them—as quickly as possible.

Yet there were some red herrings in that war game. First, the Indian planes outnumbered ours by a ratio of 10-, or sometimes 12-, to-4. Second, since this was a training exercise for the Indians, the U.S. pilots were playing the "red team" and thus simulating the stiff tactics of India's enemies; they weren't pulling the maneuvers that they would routinely manage in their own exercises, much less in a real air duel.

Third, since the Cope India exercises, several F-15Cs—and also many of the Navy's carrier-based F-18s—have been fitted with new Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar systems, which allow the pilot to detect, track, and destroy several enemy planes at once from significantly longer ranges.

The Air Force has, in fact, resisted putting AESA radar into very many F-15s, for fear that it might weaken the case for the F-22.

More to the point, quite a few F-22s have been built since those games—187 have been funded. Precisely what are the scenarios that justify building more? This is the question that the Air Force has not answered, at least not publicly.

Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, has a very interesting article in the March 2009 issue of the Atlantic, making the case for buying more F-22s. It's the most sophisticated argument I've read, but even he evades the main issues. He ignores the F-15's AESA radar. He says nothing about the F-35, a lower-cost stealth fighter about to enter production. (It has problems, too, but if someone thinks more stealth planes are needed, the F-35 has about 75 percent of the F-22's capabilities for about half the price.) Finally, in response to one blogger's critique of his article, Bowden admits that, even in a war against a more sophisticated foe, we would still establish aerial dominance "with the current fleet of F-15s backed by a few F-22s"—187 F-22s are "a few"?—but that "we will likely lose more planes and pilots" while doing so. He adds, "While this is academic for you and I, it is not for the men and women in the cockpits of those planes."

Let's examine that last bit of logic (ignoring for a moment the surprising fact that Bowden doesn't know basic grammar). He's saying that if some country develops a large, sophisticated, well-trained air force; and if we go to war with that country; and if air-to-air combat becomes an integral element of that war; then without more F-22s, we'll probably still attain air supremacy but at a cost of more casualties among pilots.

Each of those three ifs is pretty unlikely; multiply them by one another, and the probabilities are remote in the extreme. With all due respect to those pilots (and they deserve a great deal), is the tiny probability of their deaths, in some hypothetical future air duels, worth the tens of billions of dollars it will cost to buy more F-22s now? And in a world of limited resources, is it worth more to spend the money on that contingency than on any number of tangible needs and desires, military or otherwise?

Those are the pertinent questions. The answers seem fairly obvious.

Correction, March 5, 2009: Originally, the piece said Schwartz was the first chief who hasn't been a fighter pilot. Until the mid-1960s, many were bomber pilots. The point is, he's the first Air Force chief whose career doesn't reflect the service's dominant ethos. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) The article erroneously stated that only two F-117s flew into Iraq on the first night of the 1991 Gulf War; the F-117 was used heavily throughout the 30-day air attacks. (Two F-117s were used the first night of the Panama invasion, a year earlier.) The article also originally stated that an F-117 was shot down in daylight during the Bosnia war; in fact, it was flying at night in the Kosovo war. ( Return to the corrected paragraph.)