The decision by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to halt the further production of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor aircraft may be the most controversial of his new defense strategy. In the past Gates himself as well as other Department of Defense executives had sought to curtail F-22 production, noting that the aircraft contributes little to -- in his words -- "fight the wars we are in today and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years ahead. . . ."
But those efforts ran afoul of the F-22's large number of congressional and aerospace industry supporters, as well as Air Force's leadership. Now, however, Secretary Gates has the direction and backing of the new administration to "reshape the priorities of America's defense establishment."
With that underpinning, Gates has stated that F-22 production will end with 187 aircraft -- the 183 planes now built and under contract plus the four aircraft in the Fiscal Year 2009 supplemental appropriation. This is less than one-half of the Air Force's stated requirement for 381 aircraft. This is based on the need to provide ten rotational Air Expeditionary Forces (AEFs), each with at least one squadron of 24 Raptors.
Under Air Force planning, those 240 F-22s assigned to the AEFs would be supported by 60 training aircraft, 15 test and evaluation aircraft, 32 for backup, and 34 for attrition during the aircraft's service life (i.e., ten percent of the above). The total: 381 aircraft.
However, in February 2009, Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz said that a new F-22 target would be "less than 381" jets, which Air Force leadership had clung to in recent years. Air Force officials recently told Congress that they would like an additional 60 or more F-22s, for a total of between 240 and 250 aircraft.
"I think it's a sign of a healthy institution that we're willing to revisit long-held beliefs, no matter how central to our ethos they may be," said Schwartz.
Conceived as the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) in the 1980s, the F-22 Raptor won a competitive development with the Northrop-McDonnell Douglas F-23 design. The ATF program was initiated to (1) insure U.S. air superiority, (2)counter the growth of advanced air defenses, and (3)allow the timely retirement of F-15 Eagle aircraft. When Lockheed was selected in 1991 to build the ATF the Air Force procurement goal was 648 aircraft.
Now, almost two decades later, the F-22 arrives on the scene as foreign air threats are far more limited. Instead of having to counter hundreds of advanced Russian Sukhoi or MiG fighters over Europe or Asia, U.S. air forces will face only tens of advanced fighters in the likely crises and conflicts of the foreseeable future. And, beyond the ten AEFs of the Air Force, the Navy can put into forward areas up to ten carrier air wings -- with as many as 60 F/A-18 Hornets of various models--while the Marine Corps has three aircraft wings with an aggregate of more than a dozen F/A-18 squadrons.
Secretary Gates, while announcing the end of F-22 production, has also said that he is accelerating procurement of F/A-18E and F models for the Navy, and recommending an acceleration of the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. The F-35 -- also having low-observable (stealth) features -- will come in three principal models: The F-35A for Air Force land-basing, the F-35B Short Takeoff/vertical Landing (STOVL) for the Marine Corps, and the F-35C carrier-capable model for the Navy. The ultimate procurement goal for the three services is now 2,443 aircraft.
Thus, Secretary Gates is predicting that the Navy-Marine Corps F/A-18 force, eventually supplemented and the replaced by the JSF, as well as the Air Force F-35A program will complement the reduced F-22 force to provide an adequate if not superior air capability for the country.
Editor's note: This is the first of several commentaries by Mr. Polmar on the new defense strategy and procurement plans being put forth by Secretary Gates.
-- Norman Polmar