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By Michael Durao and Arnold Lewis
August 8th, 2011

W.J. Hennigan’s article “High Costs, Malfunctions Plague F-22 Fighter Jets” (L) is nearly as flawed as he makes the F-22 out to be, examining the fighter jet’s costs with a bias that’s obvious from the first sentence, misleading figures, and apparently no knowledge of the many problems faced by all aerospace procurement.  In reality, the F-22 is among the most cost-effective and capable defense projects in recent years, particularly after Robert Gates and his cheerleaders in Congress killed the Raptor in favor of the overpriced and substandard F-35.

Hennigan’s article represents the drastic success of transformational warfighting proponents in spreading misinformation about the Raptor while covering up the massive failures of their pet projects.

The end of the Cold War brought a disturbing new trend to US defense policy: a disgusting fetishization of the endless police actions that are draining the country’s coffers and killing its soldiers today, all in the name of transnational cooperation against “rogue states” and military Keynesianism to retain domestic defense sector jobs.  Masquerading under the sterile and politically correct title of “transformational warfighting,” Donald Rumsfeld continued the policy after the Clinton years, and during his tenure as Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates has institutionalized it throughout the whole DoD by using the 2007 Minot AFB nuclear weapons incident to force his most vocal opponents’ retirements.  Certainly there are some undeniably valid ideas from the transformational warfighters, specifically that technology can and should be used to increase the survivability and lethality of our forces, it was flawed from the beginning by overburdening defense projects with unnecessary features and design by committee, perhaps the most notoriously awful, overburdened, and inept being the Littoral Combat Ship and Joint Strike Fighter.  This trend is set to continue even after Leon Panetta has taken the reins of the DoD, considering that his only experience with airpower involves fleets of drones with a notorious habit of blowing up Pakistani civilians when they aren’t getting hacked by cave-dwelling terrorists.

However, the F-22 came before the transformational warfighters; from the beginning, the F-22 was specifically engineered to take on advancing 4th Generation fighters in the East, an ambitious goal that resulted in an immensely capable fighter.  Not weighed down by the design by committee of the F-35, the F-22 is cheaper, possesses almost the same air-to-ground and close air support capabilities contrary to false claims by the program’s corporate backers and their stooges in Washington, and is the only aircraft able to avoid detection by emerging Eastern surface-to-air threats including widely-proliferated S-300 SAM variants designed specifically to shoot down F-35s.  The development of affordable Russian and Chinese stealth fighters - the Sukhoi T-50 and Chengdu J-20 - has already prompted interest in relatively poor third world nations - the very same  “rogue states” that transformational warfighters wet the bed at night over - as potential export customers, meaning that within a decade such prestigious nations as Venezeula and Algeria - both planning to procure several squadrons of T-50s - will have fighter technology comparable to the F-35 and SAMs able to detect them but not Raptors.  And with more than adequate air-to-ground performance, the only reason F-22s haven’t seen combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya has been orders from Rumsfeld and Gates not to deploy them.

Not only are claims about the Raptor’s capabilities being substandard a boldfaced lie, the GAO’s methodology in determining cost per airframe is significantly flawed, drastically increasing that number with sunk costs from R&D and maintenance following the craft’s having entered service.  Both of these factors misrepresent the price in a way that hasn’t been applied to 4th Generation fighters and fail to accurately describe procurement costs.  First, R&D for aerospace programs is essentially shared; although many technologies were developed specifically for the Raptor, they’ve found their way into numerous other fighters that the GAO does not apply these costs to.  The paradigmatically superior AESA radars in the F/A-18E/F, F-35, and ongoing F-15C/D upgrades would not exist if the F-22’s AN/APG-77 was not designed first, owing much of their technology and design to experience in scaling down AESA - previously only used on large early warning aircraft, ships, and ground-based systems - to fit in a Raptor.  Maintenance costs are also overlooked in nearly all price per airframe figures other than the Raptor’s; the $30 million price tag of an F-15 Eagle as of its late 70s/early 80s procurement would skyrocket well above that of a Raptor’s if one was to include all of the fleet-wide upgrades and fixes to avionics and structural problems over its nearly four decades of service.  Modern Eagle variants acquired by the South Koreans, Singaporeans, and others are offered at about $100 million each per airframe as a result of inflation and more modernized avionics.  Considering the Eagle’s severe structural problems and with USAF airframes reaching comparable levels of performance to their modernized, exported counterparts, the true cost of our Raptors pales in comparison to the money sunk into the Air Force’s 4th Generation fighter arsenal.

This also highlights that the Raptor is far from the first aircraft to suffer “teething pains” early in its operational lifespan; nearly all aircraft do, including many considered to be among the greatest of their time.  From the F-15 to the internationally-venerated F-4 Phantom II, every aircraft has faced structural and maintenance problems during its first years; minor problems that engineers could not foresee are inherent in systems subjected to such severe stresses operationally.  The F-14 Tomcat, arguably the best interceptor and naval fighter ever developed, was plagued by numerous design flaws leading to several fatal crashes and even more destroyed airframes when it first entered service.  However, as one of its pilots was quoted: “This ain’t nuthin’; the early days of the Crusader and Phantom were way worse,” in reference to the Navy’s previous generation of fighters.  The sudden expectation of the Raptor to be an exception to this rule is absurd, especially given the sophistication and complexity involved in developing and operating the world’s first stealth air superiority fighter, and like with the F-4 or F-15, the F-22’s problems will be settled.

When the exaggerated and flawed cost estimates, maintenance problems, and larger political and defense maneuvering are put in context, the true nature of the F-22 program becomes apparent: a fighter built for an absolutely critical mission that was incompatible with the doctrines of Rumsfeld, Gates, Panetta, and their parent administrations.  This incompatibility led to a massive smear campaign against the aircraft and has unfairly sullied its public perception for the past decade. Using foggy lenses that ignore any rising near-peer threat that does not fit into the crusade against failed states and non-state actors leads to such faulty measures of capability, and will lead to our military forces being woefully unprepared to counter any real threats to national security and will leave them incapable of power projection in the future.

Michael Durao is an Beowulf Associate who's analytical expertise is focused on aerospace platforms.  His particular concentration lies in the analysis of the capabilities and proliferation of Eastern air defense and air-to-air systems, defense acquisition reform, and the evolving paradigms of 21st Century warfighting.

Arnold Lewis is the Content Editor for ENGAGED Magazine and his interests currently lie with International Politics & Security. Currently, he resides in Boulder, Colorado.
 


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