Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Raptor: sweet name, plane less impressive

Several members of Congress have expressed opposition to the Obama administration's intent to end the F-22 production line at 187 aircraft. Last month, the Senate Armed Services committee included in budget legislation an additional $1.75 billion for planes that the President and the Department of Defense do not want. There must be some really compelling operational logic to this, right? Just so we're all on the same page, let's document the utility of the F-22 so that we can see exactly how much its proponents are Supporting the Troops!
  • F-22s currently in service: 141
  • F-22s still to be built: 46
  • F-22 unit cost: $137,500,000
  • F-22 combat missions flown (ever): 0
  • F-22 hourly flying cost: $49,808
  • mean time between critical failures during F-22 flight: 1.7 hours
  • maintenance time required for one hour of F-22 flight: 30 hours
  • F-22 fleet mission availability: 55.9%

But you're not accounting for China!, say the F-22's proponents. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), whose state, incidentally, will lose 2,000 jobs when the production line closes down, finds this really worrying: "While the administration is emphasizing winning current conflicts, its stance regarding the F-22 does not adequately account for other kinds of threats." Lockheed recognizes that this pitch has broad appeal on the Hill, pulling in supporters on the right (even some who don't have F-22 production facilities in their states/districts!): "The best weapon may be the one that isn't used but instead deters a conflict before it begins." And you know, that's a great pitch -- the question is whether F-22s are necessary or even useful for deterring future adversaries.

For one thing, Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen tell us that halting production at the current level will still give us 2:1 overmatch on advanced Chinese fighter aircraft in 2020 (and the Chinese planes will be inferior, at that). But never mind the question of how well the Raptor will fare against MIGs in some fantasy dogfight that will only take place on computer monitors or the skies above Miramar. If your understanding of Chinese military capabilities is any more advanced than Tom Tancredo's, then you probably realize that they've been developing anti-access weapons and tactics for the specific purpose of countering U.S. force projection (to include things like short-range fighter aircraft; see "Assassin's Mace" in Krepinevich's recent Foreign Affairs article).

In short, there is simply no compelling operational or strategic reason to build more F-22s than the 187 for which we have already budgeted. Which is why it's great to see the SecDef, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the Chairman and ranking member of Senate Armed Services line up in opposition to the seven extra planes (and 175 billion extra dollars), and why it's great to see the President threatening a veto of the defense appropriation if the extra money makes it into the final bill.


  1. What is the source for your data on metrics for the F-22? Thus far I see no source (perhaps you meant to link it).

  2. Herschel -- the numbers are from the article linked at the bottom (under "threatening a veto").

  3. F-35 Lightning IIs currently in service: 0

    Cost increase of F-35s from baseline projections: 50 percent

    Number of F/A-18 carrier-based platforms to be built in the future: 0

    Fighter factory closest to Gulliver's hometown:
    Ft Worth (F-35)

    Fighter factory farthest from Gulliver's hometown: Georgia (F-22)

    Average age of the F-15: 24 years

    Mininum number of fighters believed to be needed to keep a credible core: 2,250

    Number of recent GAO reports advising SecDef that relying too much on JSF production is a bad idea: 1

    Percent of F-35 flight testing completed: 2 percent

    Again, number of F-35s currently in service: 0

    Now, I'm not an expert on F-22s, air power or anything related to procurement. But I do know that Congress should exist to debate the sagacity of procurement policies or executive competence.

    I also believe that most of those in Congress are voting to sustain pork, not to safeguard US air superiority. But I believe that some in Congress have concerns about JSF, and perhaps we might listen to them?

  4. "Cost increase from baseline projections?" We want to talk about sunk costs now? Have you considered the numbers you saw in the original post? The F-22 is BARELY OPERATIONAL!

    The "credible core" number that you speak of will be covered with the numbers already approved. Yes, it's correct that the F-35 is unproven, and it's unsettling to find ourselves dependent on its success. Should we keep pouring money into the outrageously expensive and perhaps entirely unnecessary F-22 instead?

    I know next to nothing about the F-35 program, so I'm not going to waste time singing its praises here. What I will say is that international cooperative development and foreign military sales will be increasingly important to our procurement efforts in a future of limited defense budgets, and a system that has an international component (whether that's cooperative development or the possibility of sale) is simply much, much more viable at this stage. The F-22 is not exportable in its current configuration, and without either a change in the national, interagency-developed policy on technology transfer or the stripping of capabilities that make the aircraft both unique and superior, it is not getting sold to anyone.

    This alone makes F-35 a better option. But sure, people in Congress may have concerns, and that's their job. Their concerns are considerably more compelling when 1) their district isn't on the hook for lost jobs, 2) the airplane manufacturer isn't running full-page ads in the NYT and putting the full-court press on with lobbyists, and 3) the aerospace industry's lobbying association doesn't release a report the week the defense appropriations bill is to be marked up threatening that a strategic shift in the direction of irregular warfare capabilities will imperil the defense industrial base's ability to produce the systems we need to go to war.

    (But I'm sure all of that is a coincidence.)