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The Fate of the F-22 Raptor

Raptor Today marked the self-imposed deadline for Obama to decide the fate of F-22 Raptor fighter jet, heralded by some, including the think tank Air Power Australia, as "the most capable multi-role combat aircraft in production today."

 Lockheed and Martin, which produces the fighter jet, said that if the president did not commission more jets by today (and mandate more money for the program in the defense budget) it would be forced to slash thousands of jobs.

Currently 183 jets have been commissioned, or 207 (I hate the internet) but the Air Force wanted 380 (a laughable compromise from their original request of 381 or if you believe some sources, 762 were originally requested).

Well it looks like we'll all have to hold our breath a bit longer.

The jet, the concept of which was birthed during the Cold War (otherwise known as out pissing contest with Russia), costs either $191 million or over $300 million. The internet is pretty unreliable with such figures but when discussing such sums it's sufficient to say that the thing is expensive and has been the poster child for the debate over defense spending since the nineties.

The debate over the survival of the Raptor is now entangled in the debate over Obama's budget and stimulus package.

In terms of the budget Obama has actually put forth a modest increase in defense spending, something many conservative columnist and bloggers seemed to have overlooked in their fomenting about Obama's proposed health care spending (who really cares about insuring children?). In fact, "Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he and his top policy advisers anticipated a more modest budget."

Those against producing more of the stealth planes, including Gates, say that it represents an unnecessary cost--especially since the plane has not seen combat and is unlikely to in the near future. Fred Kaplan, arguing against commissioning more jets writes:

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.

The two wars we are currently fighting are against insurgents that have no air force to speak of so air dominance is easily established with helicopters and our fleet of f-15 fighters. 

Of course those on the other side argue that defense spending looks to future conflicts, not current ones because it takes an average of 20 years (listen to the show on the NPR site) for a defense idea to go from concept to actuality. And, of course, these pro-Raptor people invoke the threat of developing China and resurgent Russia when discussing these "future conflicts." Apparently it's only fear-mongering when lobbying for a "liberal agenda."

Michael Fumento writes:

The Russians, Chinese, and many other nations already have many different fighters that fly circles around the 33-year-old F-15 Eagle that Raptor detractors insist we keep flying for decades more.

Such a claim, from what I can gather, is either hyperbolic or patently false that other nations have jets which "fly circles around" especially since the F-15 has never (repeat never) been shot down according to Mark Bowden at the Atlantic.

However in this same article Bowden argues that if the current F-15 fleet is not completely replaced with F-22 that America's long air dominance with dissapate and put our air pilots at risk. He writes: "Countries such as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea will be more likely to take on the U.S. Air Force if their pilots stand a fighting chance."

Yes, Russia and China again. But as Kaplan, putting it more eloquently than I can, writes Bowden's argument for more F-22 (keep in mind that 183 are already built or beign built) contains too many "ifs":

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?

Kaplan also points out in his article that the F-35, which has about 75% of the capabilities of the F-22 at about half the price (whatever the price is), is not mentioned in Bowden's article. Also, in a seering indictment, Kaplan also brings up the "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." Noting that the Air Force has not equiped to many F-15 with such technology because it would weaken the case for the F-22.

Of course, in terms of economic stimulus, the F-22 has a chance of surviving because the Air Force, when it first started production of the Raptor, ingeniously spread out the production sites all over different areas of the United States creating thousands of domestic jobs which, as mentioned before, may disappear. And if Obama's stimulus package is about anything it's about job creation. There are actually several websites and petitions focused specfically on preserving "Raptor jobs." Some of them evenly smartly argue for the minimum number needed to keep the program running at current capacity, keeping everyone employed.

In the end I have to admit I don't know where to come down on this issue. On the one hand I am uncomfortable having so many jobs dependent on something that, quite efficiently, can end the life of many people at once. But having many friends and family in the air force I would want them to have the best protection and equipment. However, since the Raptor (and I must admit I like the name) serves no purpose in our current conflicts I feel like it's a self-fulfilling prophecy to spend so much money on "potential" conflicts.

Throwing so much money at something almost makes it seem like you want it to happen.


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This is a perceptive and informative post, Austin. And I agree with you: it's hard to know how to come down on this question of whether to buy more of these things. My own sense is that we should not, but it's a complicated issue that better minds than my own must settle. All I can say with any authority is that the spreading of production across multiple congressional districts is a political strategy almost as old as the sun. Good post!

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Austin Diaz


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