By David Crane
defrev (at) gmail (dot) com
May 29, 2009
While Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ decision to halt production of the costly Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor low-observable/stealth fighter aircraft is perhaps not the best long-term strategic decision he could have made, it’s certainly understandable. Given the U.S. government’s–and thus DoD’s–current money crunch vs. the program’s high cost and lack of current combat-utility in Iraq and “Stan” (Afghanistan), cutting the Raptor program’s reported $3.5 billion per year cost certainly has some logic to it. Some programs simply have to go, and we might as well start with the expensive ones that don’t have any seeming immediate tactical or strategic utility for the two wars we’re currently fighting, right? Let’s face it, air superiority is not exactly an issue right now in either theater. We’ve got the air, and we don’t need F-22s to maintain it.
So, what’s wrong with cancelling the Raptor? Well, for one thing, we finally got the production cost down to approximately $143 million per aircraft. If they cancel the F-22 program at 187 total aircraft–56 aircraft short of the 243 aircraft the U.S. Air Force had stated as its requirement–the F-22 Raptor will really come in somewhere around $350 million apiece, with the last four aircraft coming off the line at an estimated cost of approx. $200 million per, due to the $147 million “end-of-production expenses” that will be rolled into their procurement price. Understand that the Air Force originally wanted 750 aircraft, but they wittled that number down to 442 aircraft, then 381, then 243, and then 183, before bring that number back up to 187.
This leads us to the second reason why F-22 Raptor program cancellation is a bad idea. Strategically, 187 F-22 Raptors simply isn’t an adequate number for a future war against China and/or Russia, and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), also made by Lockheed Martin, simply doesn’t have the Raptor’s air-to-air combat capability, so it can’t fulfill the same air-superiority role against the latest Russian fighters, let alone their Gen-5 fighters that are currently either under development or on the drawing board–and Russia likes to export their fighters. DefenseReview would therefore feel much more comfortable with a quiver of at least 1,000 Raptors–preferably half of them in two-seat “Super Raptor” form–for a war against the Dragon and/or the Bear. Both countries (China and Russia) are currently developing low-observable, supermaneuvarable 5th Generation fighter aircraft–like the Russian Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA, for example–and Russia’s latest 4th-Gen. Sukhoi and MiG aircraft currently being manufactured and exported to other countries are arguably superior to our latest F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft in a number of aspects.
But having stated the above, do we have any sympathy for the Air Force, Lockheed Martin, or Boeing? No, and here’s why. First, it’s their own fault. They brought this situation on themselves. The fact is that the F-22 Raptor took WAY too long and cost WAY too much money to develop, period, end of story. There is simply no reasonable explanation for it to have taken almost 16 years for the F-22 to have entered service from the time of contractor selection. Actually, it really took about 19.5 years if you start the clock from the Air Force’s request for proposal (RFP) in July of 1986, which resulted in the YF-22 and YF-23, and over 24 years if you start the count from the inception of the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program in 1981.
There is simply no justifiable reason why ANY new tactical fighter aircraft, or any new combat aircraft of any kind, for that matter, should take longer than 5 years to develop from initial concept to combat (production and procurement). And it definitely shouldn’t take longer than 5 years for any aircraft system to go into production from the time the Air Force selects a contractor. Don’t agree? Well, here’s our retort, consisting of four examples:
1) The North American Aviation (NAA) P-51 Mustang, the most advanced piston-engined fighter aircraft of World War II (WWII) was developed in approx. 120 days. That’s 4 months, folks. Wikipedia provides more specifics: “The prototype NA-73X was rolled out just 117 days after the order was placed, and first flew on 26 October 1940, just 178 days after the order had been placed — an incredibly short gestation period.”
2) The Messerschmitt Me-262 Schwalbe (Swallow), the world’s first operational jet fighter aircraft and the most advanced fighter aircraft of WWII went operational within 5 years from the start of development. This was a truly revolutionary aircraft for its time, and was arguably more revolutionary than the F-22 relative to contemporary aircraft of both models.
3) The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was brought from concept to production by Lockheed Skunk Works as a black project within 5 years. The SR-71 and its precurser aircraft (the A-12 and YF-12A) were truly revolutionary aircraft in a number of ways (design aspects, speed, capability, materials, manufacturing requirements, maintenance requirements, etc.), every bit as revolutionary as the F-22 Raptor, if not more so, relative to their contemperary aircraft.
4) The McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F-15 Eagle, our most advanced and capable 4th-Gen. fighter aircraft (and a very large leap ahead of the F-4 Phantom), went into production within 5 years of contractor selection.
So, what happened with the ATF and subsequent F-22 Raptor programs in the 1980’s, 1990’s, and 2000’s? In a word, racketeering. In another word, corporatism. Here’s one more: corruption, as in corruption of military industrial complex (MIC) and the U.S. military procurement system. Somewhere along the line, someone (or a number of people) somewhere in the U.S. military industrial complex and military procurement system, respectively, discovered that they could accomplish a number of objectives by dragging system (including aircraft) development time out over many more years, instead of developing and fielding a finished product as quickly as possible. The private sector/contractors figured out that they could make a lot more money, squeezing hundreds of millions to billions of dollars from the Department of Defense (DoD) before ever going into production. After all the development money, the actual production contract was just a bonus, the icing on the cake, if you will. And, the public sector/military folks realized that they could safeguard or prolong careers and create a more advantageous public-sector-exit/private-sector-entry strategy for themselves. Synergy. Of course, you can apply this to pretty much all areas of current U.S. military procurement.
And so went the F-22 Raptor, which has cost the U.S. government approx. $11 billion–that’s “billion” with a “b”–for Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) alone, according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). That’s before you even get into production! According to GlobalSecurity.org, “as of 2002, DOD had [already] spent $26 billion of the $69 billion planned for the F-22 program.” $69 billion…for an aircraft program.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy is the F-22 program’s suppression of evolutionary 4th-Gen. figher aircraft design concepts. The F-15 Silent Eagle (F-15SE) is a perfect example. What, you think Boeing just came up with Silent Eagle in the last few months? Anyone reading this who doesn’t think that significant capability and performance upgrades haven’t been available for the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Falcon, and F/A-18 Hornet–including low-observability/stealth upgrades, thrust vectoring, canards, and upgraded flight software and systems, (for supermaneuverability), conformal fuel tanks (CFT), integrated flight and fire control (IFF) and ramjet missiles with tail control, just to name a few–for the last 20-25 years while the F-22 Raptor has been ravenously and rapaciously eating taxpayer dollars, well, let’s just say I’ve got some swamp land in Florida I’d like to sell you. All of a sudden, just as the Raptor is getting cancelled, here it is (Silent Eagle)! As the Church Lady might say, “Well…isn’t that convenient!”
Of course, the F-15 Silent Eagle is only the latest in succession of F-15 and F-16 upgrade/improvement/modernization concepts. It’s been preceded by the F-15 ACTIVE (Advanced Control Technology for Integrated Vehicles), F-15 S/MTD (Short Takeoff and Landing/Maneuver Technology Demonstrator) a.k.a. STOL Eagle, and the AFTI F-16, just to name a few. “AFTI” stands for “Advanced Fighter Technology Integration”, by the way.
Note: DefenseReview has been informed by an aerospace insider that an even lower-observable/stealthier F-15 than the Silent Eagle was flown across the continental United States without detection by radar during the 1980’s, and that it’s possible to make an F-15 just as low-observable/stealthy as an F-22. Since we only have one source and no confirmation or documentation on this ’80’s-era low-observable F-15, we have to consider it as an unconfirmed/unverified report for now, no matter how trustworthy our source is (but this source is very trustworthy). If anyone out there has any more information on this unconfirmed low-observable F-15 project, we’d love to hear from you on it.
The bottom line is that we could have had F-15s, F-16s, and F/A-18s with low-observable design upgrades, thrust vectoring, canards, conformal fuel tanks, IFF, better missiles etc. a long time ago had these types of upgrades to our 4th-Gen fighter aircraft not been considered a threat to our 5th-Gen fighter program (F-22 Raptor) and therefore suppressed. In other words, F-22 Raptor program survival trumped viable upgrades that would have brought our 4th-Gen. aircraft into flight-capability parity with the latest Russian Sukhoi and Mikoyan fighter aircraft like the Sukhoi Su-30 MKI Flanker-H and Su-35 Flanker-E, and Mikoyan MiG-29OVT, and MiG-35 Fulcrum-F.
So, while Defense Review likes the F-22 and thinks we should build more of them (again, at least 1,000) to help ensure U.S. air dominance even if China and/or Russia become a serious military threat or enemy in the future, we’re not going to cry about it. The fact is, the Air Force and contractors (Lockheed Martin and Boeing) could have developed the F-22 much more quickly and at significantly lower cost. If they had done it the right way, we could have had operational Raptors by the 1996-1997 time frame and had the full compliment of 750 aircraft–or possibly even DefenseReview’s desired 1,000. Let this be a lesson to the United States Air Force. Do it right, do it better, next time.
Think about it. If another country can develop a next-gen fighter in 5 years, but it takes us 15-25 years to develop one, that puts us at an obvious and very significant deveopment-cycle and cost disadvantage, and potentially a strategic warfighting disadvantage, as well, since the technology might be obsoleted by other countries’ tech by the time development is done. So, U.S. Air Force, give us an operational next-gen aircraft (fighter, CAS, tanker, transport, whatever) within five years. That’s 5 years from concept to combat. We need to be able to do that, and we can do that. After all, we’re still the United States of America, at least for the time being.
The dogfight over the F-22A Raptor (RedState)
Air Force budget: Little money, no F-22 Raptors (Stars and Stripes)
White House Aero-Hit-List #3: F-22 Raptor Fighter Aircraft (The Aero-News Network)