associated press file
Wednesday, April 1, 2009 | 2 a.m.
In promising to reduce the deficit eventually, President Barack Obama recently told Congress he would “reform our defense budget so that we’re not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don’t use.”
That was a poke at the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor.
“The F-22 is the poster child for the dilemma of Defense Department spending,” said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University who served under President Bill Clinton as chief White House official for national security budgets.
The stealth fighter jet was conceived to fight the Soviet Union, but by the time the first squadron was operational in 2005, critics were dismissing the jet as superfluous for today’s wars.
Obama has to choose whether to shut down production of the F-22, which has yet to see combat.
The decision is central to the larger debate about the future of the military: With budget constraints and a changed world, in what defense systems do we invest?
The last of the 183 Raptors purchased will be finished in 2011. If Obama continues production, it’s likely only 60 more will be built — a far cry from replacing the entire aging F-15 fleet or even the 381 requested by the Air Force.
The small number is sufficient for those who think the F-22 is an unnecessary high-tech toy.
“Most of the military missions going to be carried out by U.S. forces in the future will look more like Afghanistan and Iraq than look like World War II,” Adams said. “The F-22 is designed for classic, highly intense conflicts of a massive ground war. It’s the technology of tomorrow for yesterday’s fight.”
Defenders argue that is myopic thinking.
Although no F-15 has been shot down by an enemy plane, the edge it once held is eroding as Russia, China, North Korea and others fly jets with equal capabilities, according to Gary Schmitt, director of strategic studies at American Enterprise Institute.
They will be more willing to take us on as the playing field levels, he added, also noting the advancement of surface-to-air missiles adds to the need for the F-22.
“It’s absolutely phenomenal — light-years ahead of anything I’ve flown before,” said Maj. Micah Fesler, an F-22 pilot stationed at Nellis Air Force Base who previously flew the F-15.
Despite air-to-air combat not being a factor in either Iraq or Afghanistan, the way we are fighting in those countries — mostly with small, lightly armored ground units — depends on our ability to own the skies. Ground commanders assume no one will drop bombs on them and that air-support can be quickly summoned.
And critics ignore a crucial point when noting we didn’t face an air challenge when invading Iraq in 2003. That was only because Saddam Hussein’s Air Force was beaten so badly during the Gulf War that he buried his airplanes rather than attempt to fight.
Another new fighter jet, the F-35, is often touted as a multi-role fighter that is a cheaper alternative to the F-22. But they are not interchangeable.
The F-22 has far superior air-to-air combat capabilities than the air-to-ground-focused F-35. They work best in tandem. Just as the F-15 clears the skies before the F-16 takes out ground targets, the
F-22’s mission is to be first in before the F-35’s ground attack.
Each F-22, with a cost of about $142 million — $354 million including research and development — has about 1,000 parts, manufactured in 44 states, creating a powerful Congressional lobby, particularly with high unemployment crippling the economy. Almost 200 House members requested that Obama continue the F-22 program.
Obama’s decision will indicate not just how he’ll fund the Pentagon but whether he’ll dedicate a bigger piece of the pie to domestic issues.