Go to any Internet search engine and type “F-22” in the search field. You will no doubt return lots of hits about the nearly successful attempt by the House of Representatives to cut the F-22 advanced jet fighter program into extinction. Many members of the House assailed the high tech fighter program due to its rising cost. For a while, it looked as if the world’s greatest fighter aircraft would never fly. Today, thanks to an overwhelming expression of support from both military and civilian proponents, a congressional agreement was reached to extend funding of the F-22. However, production of the plane has been postponed until April 2001 and opponents still lurk. Going forward, those with an interest in future technologies that can make the world a safer place should be concerned when a program like the F-22 is threatened. I remember the excitement I felt upon first reading of this promising new Advanced Tactical Fighter that would replace the F-15. I still marvel at an aircraft that cruises at supersonic speeds without using afterburners, detects virtually any enemy first while itself avoiding detection through stealth, and outmaneuvers any foes via a new technology called thrust vectoring. I followed the progress of the F-22 with enthusiasm throughout years of both praise and criticism.
From early on, there were serious doubts about stealth technology, the aircraft’s role, and as mentioned, cost. The success of the F-117 in Panama and the Gulf War eventually squelched doubts about stealth technology. As the Soviet Union collapsed and the U.S. military downsized, opponents of the F-22 characterized the aircraft strictly as a cold war fighter designed to achieve air superiority in a large-scale air war with the Soviets. Today, some critics still maintain that the F-22 is no longer needed for that reason. The charge that the F-22 is a huge financial gamble persists and is the most serious. Yet, the money kept rolling in, as the F-22 continued to demonstrate its potential to one day dominate the air over any battlefield.
Another argument for discontinuing the F-22 is that if Americans could simply be patient until the year 2010, they would see production of the Joint Strike Fighter. Congressmen hoping to substitute the JSF for the F-22 in order to cut spending must stop looking at this as an either/or proposition. These two aircraft have been designed for two different roles with different manufacturing processes. A good way of the understanding the differences in the F-22 and the JSF is in comparing the F-15 to the F-16, respectively. When I think of the F-15, the words advanced, superior, and expensive come to mind (to date, a F-15 has never been shot down). When I think of the F-16, I think versatile, low-cost, foreign sales. At this moment in history, we need both products on the battlefield, the F-15 to completely dominate the air, and the F-16 to do a little of everything well. In the same way, future air operations will call for the presence of both a superfighter like the F-22 and a workhorse like the JSF.
The Joint Strike Fighter program makes sense militarily and economically. Besides making improvements in stealth and maneuverability over today’s aircraft, the JSF’s multi-service design makes it a strike aircraft that will serve just about everyone except the Coast Guard. The U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marines and U.S. allies all want it. The numerous contracts for the plane as well as the large numbers of aircraft planned for production make it more affordable. This is to say nothing of the lower cost onboard systems that are not as advanced as those of the F-22. There will be “a high degree of commonality between service variants and a single production line,” says Boeing, a leading competitor for the JSF contract. Ironically, one of Boeing’s customer needs for the Air Force is “complementing the F-22A.” The JSF is the multirole fighter that will replace the F-16.
The theme of the F-22 Air Dominance Fighter is it’s “first look, first shot, first kill” ability. The key words are Air and Dominance. The aircraft’s purpose is to establish absolute control of the skies over any battlefield. Gen. Richard E. Hawley, Commander, Air Combat Command, affirms the need for U.S. expeditionary forces to establish “a sanctuary free from enemy aerial attack as they disembark at ports and airfields.” He further wonders how dominant we will be if aircraft like the AWACS or JSTARS come under attack. Future air battles may not be as one-sided for the U.S. as in the Gulf and Kosovo Wars.
If the U.S. does not follow-through on the F-22 investment, we will not have the world’s dominant fighter during the year’s leading up to 2010. This leaves a gap of up to ten years without a superior fighter to compete with the Su 37, the Russian answer to the F-22. The gap will have to be overcome by increasing the number of F-15’s, upgrading the F-15 (how do you upgrade a non-stealth airframe to stealth?), or relying on other upgraded aircraft like the Navy’s F-18E/F Super Hornet, an aircraft designed to protect fleets. Keep in mind that the F-15 will be almost 40 years old when the JSF arrives. If the U.S. goes to battle with the best product, pilot risk will be greatly reduced. Also, a small number of F-22’s will do the job of many F-15’s.
There is a reason that Europe’s upcoming superfighter was called the “EF 2000”. The Eurofighter was supposed to be in service by the year 2000. While its production has been under way for a year now, delivery has been delayed until 2002. The Eurofighter is expected to outperform the F-15, but will not approach the effectiveness of the F-22. The Europeans are reported to be already selling the Eurofighter to anyone interested. Other aircraft such as the MiG-29, SU-27, and Mirage 2000 can compete well with the F-15. The U.S. will be in the odd position of deploying an advanced fighter (the F-15), which will overwhelm neither enemy nor ally. If the U.S. wants, it can deliver F-22’s by about time the Eurofighter appears. While the U.S. may overcome the technological edge of other aircraft by seizing the numerical advantage, there’s just something that seems wrong about the Air Force not flying the best.
Instead of threats from SAM’s, or BVR missiles, the F-22 was almost shot down by friendly fire from the very institution that spawned its existence, the United States House of Representatives. I was in the Cobb Galleria Center on the night of November 8, 1994 where Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich announced to a crowd of ecstatic supporters that his party would now control congress for the first time in 40 years. News anchors were in tears. Democrats were scrambling for cover. The world was shocked. This was a night that both dreams and nightmares came true. As Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Gingrich’s new conservative Congress would bring a “revolution” by implementing their Contract with America. The man I saw around town and in my favorite Mexican restaurant and in my local barbershop was now one of the most powerful in the world. The 8000 Georgians employed by Lockheed Martin’s Aeronautical Systems Division in Marietta, Georgia could take comfort in Newt’s position during an era of defense cut-backs and base-closings.
Mr. Gingrich went on to implement the Contract with America and in short, became a casualty of his own ideals and combative personality. He easily won re-election in 1998, but casting aside his pride and accepting the blame for Republican losses nationwide, he resigned from Congress. This left Bob Livingston of Louisiana as the next in line for Speaker of the House, but soon he also stepped down after admitting to misconduct uncovered by Clinton sympathizers after the Lewinsky and other scandals surfaced. This meant that a mild-mannered moderate Republican from Illinois named Dennis Hastert would become Speaker. Commenting on the F-22 program, Hastert says “We need to concentrate on those things that work.” Back in Georgia, moderate Republican, Johnny Isakson won Newt Gingrich’s seat in Georgia’s 6th congressional district. Isakson is currently the most junior member of the delegation. He assured me that he would do everything in his power to continue the F-22 program.
Recall that Georgia is also the home state of Senator Sam Nunn, former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. In his last three Senate elections, the popular lawmaker carried at least 80% of the vote. Mr. Nunn was considered an authority on national defense matters. Members of both parties recognized him as one of the most objective and informed on defense matters. He is said to have been approached by the Clinton Administration to replace Les Aspen as Secretary of Defense after the Somalia fiasco. Mr. Nunn retired from Congress in 1997. This left no dominant political figure to protect the military industry and bases located in the state of Georgia. Ideological enemies of Gingrich and Republicans eager to prove themselves bipartisan sharpened their knives to carve up some Georgia pork.
The idea of a cut was kept off the radar screen by the House Appropriations Committee and when announced, caught F-22 supporters off guard. This stealthy political tactic prevented debate and built quick momentum to fight off the many able F-22 proponents among the civilian, political, and military sectors. The sudden move to cut the program seemed unusual coming so soon after the Kosovo victory, where air superiority, high altitude bombing, and stealth were the key tenets. If the F-22 could have been deployed against Yugoslavia, it might have given the program a needed PR boost. Imagine the headline “F-22 Performs Magnificently Over Kosovo” juxtaposing the headline “F-22 Program Slashed by Congress.”
This is when the politics behind the F-22 went off the radar screen, dipped, then took an abrupt left turn. In a bizarre turn of irony, the Clinton Administration, traditionally no friend of the military industrial complex, announced its support for the F-22 program. Whenever feasible, the Whitehouse likes to appear to the right of Republicans. Such a convoluted polarization underscores just how little differences are left between the two parties. Partisan politics may not be a bad idea in some cases.
Okay, more irony. Defense Secretary William Cohen was one of the first to speak out against cutting the program. In a letter to Congress, he stated that he “could not accept an FY 2000 defense bill that fails to fund the F-22 fighter program.” He went on to say that “This decision, if enacted, would for all practical purposes kill the F-22 program, the cornerstone of our nation’s global air power in the 21st century.” Recall that the Clinton Administration both astonished and silenced opponents by choosing Cohen, a former Republican Senator from Maine to replace outgoing Secretary of Defense, William Perry. Cohen’s Senate confirmation vote was a resounding 99-0. The result is a Republican working inside a Democratic Whitehouse opposing Republicans.
The original Advanced Tactical Fighter bid included three contractors: Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin), General Dynamics, and Boeing. Lockheed was team leader and the work was split roughly three ways. Later, Lockheed bought General Dynamics, which made Boeing a 1/3rd partner. Besides its stake in the F-22, Boeing is also a major player in both the F-18E/F Super Hornet and the JSF programs. Boeing has gradually returned to the fighter aircraft manufacturer arena where Lockheed has had a long and successful history. The two are natural competitors. Publicly, cooperation between the two companies is reported to be good. However, one source close to Lockheed Martin tells me “once in a while you hear something said negatively about Boeing’s effort.” Another believes that Boeing may be doing a little corporate foot-dragging due to the either/or discussions between the F-22 and JSF. Indeed, Boeing says that “Other allies have voiced interest in the JSF program and Boeing believes there will be a substantial international market for the low-cost, high-performance strike aircraft.” Could Boeing be filibustering on the F-22, hoping that the JSF will sell better?
The concern about soaring spending projections is valid. There’s nothing wrong with cutting or canceling a program that is not meeting expectations or is out of control financially. In the late 1980’s, Congress proposed terminating the F-22 program, but 10 years and $20 billion later is somewhat late for a fiscal epiphany. High-tech fighter planes have traditionally cost much more than estimates, yet Lockheed Martin maintains that they can stay under their cap of $72 million, even agreeing to absorb some costs if overruns occur. Has Congress finally discovered fiscal responsibility during the “budget surplus” era?
Amazingly, during the time the proposed cuts were announced, the mainstream media kept relatively silent about the whole F-22 issue, opting instead to travail over next year’s New York Senate race and the Kennedy family’s woes. Considering the importance of such a project, we’ve heard very little debate about it, at least in public. Why aren’t more defense-conscious congressmen forcing this issue into the front lines? And where has the public been?
The F-22 program has been grudgingly extended once again. It’s too early for a eulogy and too late for abortion. The country is too far past the drawing board and to close to production to give up. Due to the cut-backs and precipitation in morale that have occurred under the current Administration, I believe that the next ten years will be a crucial and trying time for our military. The F-22 must be allowed to defend the citizens of the U.S. in the future. Besides saving the lives of American military personnel, the U.S. has a chance to establish a “peace through strength” doctrine with conventional weapons. This is one big chance that the U.S. has to make a quantum leap in air warfare. If the U.S. wants to remain a superpower, build the F-22. If not, don’t. I have one thing to say to Congress: find a way.
Find out more about the F-22 here:
F-22 Raptor Team Website