It made sense to kill the Crusader self-propelled howitzer program, a bulky cold war left-over developing so slowly it wouldn't be available before the Starship Enterprise. We also didn't need the Comanche stealth helicopter when our problem is losing choppers to low-tech ground fire. But the stealth F/A-22 Raptor fighter, with apologies to those who consider every new military project a boondoggle, we need this jet. And far more of it than Congress plans to buy.
Even critics admit the Raptor is an incredible fighting machine. Slated to enter Air Force service next year, it blends key technologies that before only existed separately on other aircraft -- or not at all.
It has radar-avoiding stealth, of the F-117A Nighthawk, the agility of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, air-to-air combat abilities and penetrability of the F-15 Eagle, tracking abilities of the E-3 Sentry (AWACS), and, like the SR-71 Blackbird, it can fly faster than the speed of sound without using fuel-guzzling afterburners.
The F/A-22 also has better reliability and maintainability than any military fighter in history and can wipe out ground targets like radar, anti-aircraft sites, and armor formations as readily as it can sweep the skies.
IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE in danger of losing our air superiority edge -- we've already lost it. With "some foreign aircraft we've been able to test, our best pilots flying their airplanes beat our pilots flying our airplanes every time," Air Force Commander John Jumper told Congress three years ago. When U.S. planes go against the Soviet Su-27 Flanker "our guys 'die' 95 percent of the time," observes Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham of California.
Cunningham is one of only two American aces from the Vietnam War. He knows the value of even a slight edge in combat capabilities. "I'm alive today because of it," he told me.
The international arms market is now flooded with Su-27 aircraft, because the Russians will sell to anybody with a bit of loose change jingling around.
The independent American Federation of Scientists notes that the Su-27 "leveled the playing field" with the F-15, our best fighter but one that's 30 years old. Meanwhile, "The Su-37 represents a new level of capability compared with the Su-27." The Su-37, apparently close to deployment, looks frightfully effective against both air and ground targets -- meaning our soldiers.
Nor is it just Russian planes we have to worry about. Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Michael O'Hanlon, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 1999 that "Congress Should Shoot Down The F-22." O'Hanlon nevertheless admitted that even then the "Swedish Gripen, French Rafale, Eurofighter EF-2000" are "impressive weapons systems that rival the F-15 and F-16." As well they should be: One entered service in 2001, one in 2002, and one just last year. The F-15 is their grand-pappy.
No, we probably won't go to war with Sweden or France anytime soon. (Well, maybe France.) But we already face enemies with high-tech French weaponry. Rest assured in the future we will clash with them -- including the Rafale fighter. It's also rather pathetic that the Czech air force is about to take possession of 39 Gripen fighters, meaning this tiny country will be flying more advanced aircraft than the United States.
Fortunately even the Su-37 lacks one thing the F/A-22 has -- stealth capability. "Only the F/A-22 can compete with the Su-27 or Su-37," Cunningham insists, because "the stealthiness allows you to get inside his radar so you can have first [missile] launch."
Surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) also regularly improve, and potential targets like the North Korean capitol of Pyongyang bristle like porcupines with SAM sites. "If you target an area with the current SAM threat today, our planes will probably die before they ever get to the target," says Cunningham. "So the F/A-22 and B2 [stealth bomber] must soften up those radar sites." Cunningham knows a bit about SAMs, too. After his fifth "kill," he was splashed by an enemy missile that's a slingshot compared to today's technology.
ONE MAJOR CONGRESSIONAL criticism of the Raptor is the cost per plane, now over twice the original estimate. But much of that is because prime contractor Lockheed Martin added a ground attack role. Most of the rest is because those congressional critics cut back the order, knowing that with fixed development costs the smaller the order the higher the per-unit price. Sound like a sneaky game? It is.
Originally the Air Force requested 762 Raptors to support two squadrons for its ten Expeditionary Wings, and then was forced to cut that in half. But it only made its first official purchase last month of a grand total of 22 planes. That's almost enough to stock the nation's aeronautical museums. Worse, it has only authorized only enough money for 218 planes total, and may slice that further.
Mind you, these same congressmen recently passed pork-laden highway spending bills of around $300 billion, but apparently Cleveland needs that transportation museum more than our troops need protection from enemy aircraft.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona told NBC's Meet the Press that we should consider completely canceling the F/A-22 program to free up money for more troops in Iraq. But McCain assumes defense spending is a zero-sum game. It's not.
In 1960, with no U.S. involvement in a hot war, the percentage of GDP spent on defense was 9.3. This year, with wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and anti-terrorist military activities around the world, we're spending a miserly 3.5 percent. Merely splitting the difference between 1960 and now would allow the Army to expand from 10 divisions to 12 and supply the Air Force with more F/A-22s than it would know what to do with. And yet last summer Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia offered an amendment to seize $1.1 billion from the Defense Budget and use it for AIDS/HIV spending.
Other armchair air experts say we can skip the F/A-22 (other than the 22 already procured) while awaiting the cheaper F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The F-35 is a fine plane and will be great for exporting to our allies, but it's far inferior to the F-22, especially in the stealth category. (Its advantage is a much lower price.) F-35 development is also three years behind that of the Raptor. If you needed a top-of-the-line new car immediately, would you hold off three years on buying that BMW until Honda Civics become available?
It's also true that F/A-22s were unneeded in invading Iraq -- though one of our F-117s was shot down over Serbia. The value of the F-22 in the current guerrilla war? Zero. But you know that expression about generals "planning to fight the last war"? Here it's the F/A-22 critics like O'Hanlon who remind us that during Desert Storm "The Air Force's premier fighter, the F-15C, flew 6,000 missions without a single loss." Yes, and that was 13 years ago. Any war against North Korea or China would make heavy use of the Raptor.
A WASHINGTON POST ANALYSIS piece that ripped the F/A-22 was reprinted on websites of such groups as Environmentalists Against War and Million Worker March. The Post claimed the plane's "role is now more ambiguous because no country is developing an aircraft with anything near its capabilities."
But isn't that exactly what we want: Quick and complete air domination? If price is the primary consideration, why not scrap both the F-22 and the F-35 and start rebuilding the P-51s of World War II, which cost only $54,000 in 1943 dollars? Like the F-15, they were marvelous planes in their time.
Why not? Because our potential enemies will be flying the best jets and antiaircraft missiles they can make or buy, allowing them to intimidate us in peacetime and defeat us in war. We must beat their capabilities, or we will surely die trying.
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