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Is F-22 Strategic Linchpin?

The F-22 Raptor is the proxy for two opposing views of planning and preparing for current and future wars: Gates’ view, that after half a century spent building a military of unparalleled size and sophistication to fight a repeat of World War II against the Soviet Union, the Pentagon’s focus and resources should be shifted a bit to include the many small wars the U.S. tends to fight with some frequency; and the view of powerful constituencies within the defense community who believe the U.S. will one day have to battle a big powerful country such as China or Russia and in such a fight only a massive conventional arsenal will suffice.

Like so much else in Washington, the debate over the F-22 has become theater. When on April 6 Gates said he wanted to end production of the F-22 at 187 aircraft, he told reporters that: “The military advice that I got was that there is no military requirement for numbers of F-22s beyond the 187."

Considering the popularity of the air-superiority fighter among so many in Congress and other constituencies, few thought the story would end there, and it didn’t. Last week the House Armed Services Committee added $369 million to the 2010 defense budget to begin building 12 more F-22s. The move would keep the fighter’s production line open indefinitely. At a press conference, Gates made it clear he was not amused by the HASC’s actions.

To read the press on this, it would appear that the Obama administration is considering unilateral disarmament that would leave the country’s air fleet gutted, inviting attacks from malicious opponents across the globe. Alarmists claim the strategic linchpin to American military might, without which the U.S. position in the world is otherwise suspect, is the F-22.

Mark Bowden, of Blackhawk Down fame, penned a 10,000 word tribute to the F-22 in the Atlantic, of all places. He cited the 381 Air Force figure as the minimum number “independent analysts” say is needed to maintain U.S. air supremacy over a battlefield. “Without a full complement of Raptors, America’s aging fighters (F-15s) are more vulnerable, and hence more likely to be challenged,” he writes. “Countries such as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea will be more likely to take on the U.S. Air Force if their pilots stand a fighting chance. This could well mean more air battles, more old-style aces—and more downed American pilots.”

In Air Force Magazine, service advocate and analyst Rebecca Grant said that because the Pentagon leadership determined the nation needs fewer F-22s than the Air Force’s stated numbers, the military may no longer be able to operate under a secure air umbrella in future wars. “Potential adversaries must be smiling at the prospect of the United States unilaterally giving up on one of its greatest military advantages.”

The Lexington Institute’s Loren Thompson writes: “Command of the air is the central, indispensable mission of the F-22… Our enemies cannot see the plane with their radars, and they cannot catch it with their fighters. They are defenseless against it, and will remain so for decades to come.” He says that only the F-22 will allow future air campaigns without “fear of horrendous losses.”

Tom Donnelly and Gary Schmitt of the right wing American Enterprise Institute went for the jobs argument in campaigning for more F-22s: “If he decides to terminate the F-22, Obama will, in effect, be firing the 25,000 people who directly work on the Raptor program (and the initial "stop-work" orders and layoffs would begin within months) and perhaps another 50,000 to 75,000 in the supplier base that supports it.”

The award for most hyperbolic argument must go to the well known Australian F-22 advocate Carlos Kapp. “If the US wishes to retain the deterrent capability it has enjoyed since 1991, it has no choice than to build and deploy up to 750 F-22 Raptors, with a bare bones minimum of around 500-600 F-22 aircraft for a credible strategic effect,” he writes. He then spells out the list of horribles that will result if the Obama administration buys fewer F-22s: lost aircraft and dead pilots; Obama’s drive for integrity in public service governance and management; the administration’s credibility on efforts to stimulate the economy (he cites Donnelly and Schmitt’s editorial); and the U.S. aerospace industry. Deterring Iran and even Venezuela is dependent on buying enough F-22s.

The oddest thing about this whole debate is that it’s not about whether or not to develop and produce the admittedly impressive air-superiority fighter. That has already happened. The F-22 is operational and current plans are to build the final of 187 Raptors by 2011. The argument F-22 advocates make is that 187 is not enough and that only by buying more Raptors will strategic catastrophe be avoided in what has become the ultimate “bean counting” game, conjuring memories of measuring the NATO vs. Warsaw Pact balance, with the difference, of course, that no adversary currently exists to bean count against.

A story last week on Congressional Quarterly’s site said that Gen. John Corley, chief of Air Combat Command at Langley, Va., wrote to Senator Saxby Chambliss, R- Ga., saying that building only 187 F-22s would jeopardize U.S. national security. Corley reportedly said 381 F-22s would be the ideal number but that a fleet of 250 fighters would be tolerable. The Air Force, and other F-22 advocates, have pinned the need for a larger F-22 fleet on what has ostensibly been a cornerstone of Pentagon planning: the need to prepare to wage two major and simultaneous conventional wars. As we’ve reported for some weeks and the New York Times confirms today, the two major conventional war planning construct is being jettisoned in the forthcoming QDR.

That leaves the F-22 as a strategic deterrent argument, one that has a few holes in it. For example, if the stealthy fighter truly deters potential adversaries, then one must ask the question why a couple dozen Raptors are not a credible deterrent but 500 of them are? The Israeli Air Force operates 328 F-16 and F-15 fighter and strike aircraft, of which 75 percent are operationally ready at any given time, according to figures compiled by Anthony Cordesman. If the Israeli Air Force truly deters its hostile neighbors from launching a conventional attack, then it does so with a couple hundred operational aircraft, all of which are fourth generation.

Some F-22 advocates say that next generation Russian built SAMs of the triple digit variety, S-300 and S-400, are so advanced, that the stealthy F-22 will be the only aircraft able to operate against them. If the new, Russian built SAM systems are as capable as some claim, then perhaps we should take a page from the asymmetric warrior handbook and subject nations who want to buy them to a cost imposition strategy. Building a large fleet of inexpensive drones that could still carry a lethal payload and salvo launching them at an enemy’s air defense system would seem to be a better approach than sending in an incredibly expensive fighter, and far less risky to any pilots. Desire aside, few countries have the economic wherewithal to buy and operate the Russian built SAM systems and top of the line fighter aircraft.

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