The F-22 is (supposedly) the 'next' air superiority fighter for the U.S. Air Force. Actually, I think they refer to it as an air dominance fighter, which certainly sounds more macho. A brief note on why we buy these things. As has been mentioned, one primary reason is a form of corporate welfare. The design and construction of modern advanced fighter aircraft is an extremely volatile tech base. Interrupting this activity for as little as a decade could, possibly, reduce the number of qualified personnel and the availability of the proper construction lines to a point where as many as another ten years would be required to reconstitute the industrial base required to even begin designing a modern fighter. For another line of argument, the monies spent on this fighter mostly go, in fact, into the American economy. They don't just sit in a vault; they go to subcontractors, and sub-subcontractors, et al, and eventually into a worker's pocket. Most of it? No, but a lot- and the efficiency of this distribution of tax revenues is probably higher than that of your average non-profit, many of which run something like ninety-five percent overhead when distributing charitable donations.

Finally, a military note. The F-22 and its ilk may not be useful in the way fighters have been useful in the past. However, a stealthy interceptor is a very valuable thing. Although massive air-to-air fur balls may be a thing of the past, it remains true that much of modern war can depend at some point on activity in the air. Transport, sea search, ground track such as the JSTARS aircraft, Air search and Air Traffic Control, and more all rely on fairly vulnerable airborne platforms whose destruction or suppression, if one can knock them off with a relatively high success rate and low loss rate, can play a significant part in determining the outcome of a conflict. In a time when single aircraft carrying NBC weaponry can wreak havoc on large areas of territory, a good interceptor remains of high value.

The aircraft used by the USAF are approaching airframe hour limits. The F-15 fleet will last perhaps another ten to fifteen years at most, with some low-hour exceptions. The F-16 fleet is due to be (potentially) replaced by the JSF; the F-18s flown by the Marines and Navy are medium interceptors at best due to their limited range and multirole compromises. A new high-end fighter is inevitable, and the F-22 seems to be it.

Having said all that, I do believe that we could do better cheaper! The ever-escalating price tag on the F-22 seems to guarantee that the Air Force will be unable to buy any other platforms for some time, and even the JSF is in danger if cost overruns bring it into direct competition with the F-22 for funding, as the Air Force likes to fly high and fly fast - airplanes that move around down near the dirt are for the Marines or the Navy. I wince whenever I read the latest gaffe or price jump on the things, and wish fervantly that we could just build an incremental advance over the F-15 for half the price.

Update: 8.15.2001

Congress just forked over $2.1 billion (with a 'b') for the first 10 F-22 Raptors. Working that out, we're talking $210 million per aircraft. Compared with the $30 million that the F-14 Tomcat cost per copy, even with inflation, that's a staggering price. It gets worse when you consider that the F-14 was considered a grossly expensive fighter for its day. The last 'new' fighter we built, the F/A-18E/F, cost something like $90 million a copy.

And finally, some info on the aircraft itself!

Courtesy of the U.S. AIr Force fact sheet library:

  • Primary function: Fighter, air-dominance
  • Wingspan: 44 feet, 6 inches
  • Length: 62 feet, 1 inch
  • Height: 16 feet, 5 inches
  • Powerplant: Two Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 engines capable of supercruise and thrust vectoring
  • Speed: Mach 1.8 (supercruise: Mach 1.5)
  • Armament: Two AIM-9 Sidewinders; six AIM-120C Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM); one 20mm Gatling gun; and two, 1,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM).
  • Crew: One (lucky bastard)
  • Builder: Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp.
  • Major Subcontractors (partial list): Northrop Grumman, Texas Instruments, Kidde-Graviner Ltd., Allied-Signal Aerospace, Hughes Radar Systems, Harris, Fairchild Defense, GEC Avionics, Lockheed Sanders, Kaiser Electronics, Digital Equipment Corp., Rosemount Aerospace, Curtiss-Wright Flight Systems, Dowty Decoto, EDO Corp., Lear Astronics Corp., Parker-Hannifin Corp., Simmonds Precision, Sterer Engineering, TRW, XAR, Motorola, Hamilton Standard, Sanders/GE Joint Venture, Menasco Aerospace.
  • Personnel (approximate): USAF Program Office, 350; Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems, 1,000; Boeing, 1,500; Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems; 1,200; Pratt & Whitney, 1,700.

The United States has had almost unchallenged air superiority in every conflict it has fought since World War II, and the last time that a U.S. soldier died as a result of an enemy airstrike was 1953. This was largely thanks to the F-15, which has been in service since 1972 and which the Air Force plans to keep going until 2025. The putative replacement is the F-22, but Congress only ordered enough F-22s to replace a third of the F-15 fleet.

The F-22 is the most expensive fighter ever built, and it has fallen victim to the vicissitudes of post-Cold War military funding. It was initially planned as long ago as the 1980s, when the main military threat facing America was a Soviet Union bristling with fighter jets. The Osama bin Ladens and Saddam Husseins of this world tend not to put up much of an aerial fight, and military spending has been adapted to focus on more contemporary threats.

However, the rest of the world has been busy closing the technological gap, which means that in the future the U.S. will be less able to control the skies. This has raised fears in the defence establishment that if the military is called upon to fight "the Big One" - a huge conventional conflict with Russia or China - it will be less able than it might have been; vulnerabilities also make conflict more likely.

F-22s take as long as three years to build, so it will not be easy to produce them quickly if the need arises. The consequences of these sorts of procurement decisions take decades to reveal themselves, but the centrality of air superiority in every conflict the U.S. has fought in the last sixty years ought to give pause for thought over this one.

BrevityQuest09. This article is an excellent discussion of the programme, whereas Thomas P. Barnett's The Pentagon's New Map discusses trade-offs in military procurement.

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