saving the raptor?

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 RaptorIn 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 fighter pilot. 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 Bosnia, but its stealthiness played only a limited, if important, role. On the first night of the Gulf War, two F-117s flew into Iraq undetected and destroyed key air-defense radar sites, allowing dozens of other allied planes to follow their flight paths with little danger. In Bosnia, Serbian air-defense crews shot down one F-117. (The plane was flying in daylight, when it could be spotted by the human eye.)

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