By lex, on July 10th, 2009
House and Senate armed services committees have added hundreds of millions of dollars to sustain the production line of the USAF’s high tech F-22 Raptor, money that the Pentagon bureaucracy did not seek and against which SecDef Gates promises to fight since the air supremacy fighter adds little to the low tech struggle for hearts and minds in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.
While commonly acknowledged as a world-beater in terms of performance, not everyone is a fan of the aircraft. Most of those lining up in opposition to the “iron triangle” of defense interests, Pentagon air power advocates and congressional district holders oppose the F-22 on cost grounds, citing a unit cost of $350 million per airframe.
That number is derived by the overall $62 billion program cost divided by 187 production assets, a method which quite intentionally ignores sunken programmatic costs such as RDT&E, start-up and many elements of life cycle sustainment. Now that the production line is moving and the learning curve is in effect, additional increments could purchased for as little as $140 million per airframe, advocates say – even lower, depending upon quantities ordered. But once the line stops moving, the specialized jigs and tools used to create the aircraft are destroyed or re-purposed and the workers laid off or redeployed.
$140 million is not cheap by any standards, but neither is battlespace dominance in wartime: While we wrestle with ground-based adversaries in distances measured in hundreds or thousands of meters, our control of the skies above the battlefield and across the oceans leading to it – distances measuring many hundreds of even thousands of cubic miles – has not been seriously contested since Korea and World War II, respectively. (I do not count North Vietnam in this category, since no US ground forces fought for the ground around Hanoi: In a classic example of a symbiotic, self-licking ice cream cone, NVAF point defense fighters essentially defended airfields which US air forces attacked because they contained NVAF point-defense fighters.)
In the WaPo today, mission capability rates and cost per flight hour are trotted out as the newest line of defense against the increased combat capability represented by the Raptor:
Sensitive information about troubles with the nation’s foremost air-defense fighter is emerging in the midst of a fight between the Obama administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress over whether the program should be halted next year at 187 planes, far short of what the Air Force and the F-22′s contractors around the country had anticipated.
“It is a disgrace that you can fly a plane [an average of] only 1.7 hours before it gets a critical failure” that jeopardizes success of the aircraft’s mission, said a Defense Department critic of the plane who is not authorized to speak on the record. Other skeptics inside the Pentagon note that the planes, designed 30 years ago to combat a Cold War adversary, have cost an average of $350 million apiece and say they are not a priority in the age of small wars and terrorist threats.
But other defense officials — reflecting sharp divisions inside the Pentagon about the wisdom of ending one of the largest arms programs in U.S. history — emphasize the plane’s unsurpassed flying abilities, express renewed optimism that the troubles will abate and say the plane is worth the unexpected costs.
The use of “Cold War” to describe a weapons system is a term of art meant to convey “anachronistic” among those who style themselves experts in military affairs, the better to fight against the acquisition of military weapons systems. No fighter pilot much cares when the machine he was flying was designed, what he cares about is the capabilities it brings to the fight: See first, shoot first, dominate the battlespace. Give me a stealthy, solar-powered, supersonic P-47 with fast, long range missiles, guns and the sensors to employ them first and I’ll be quite the happy camper.
Of course, that’s a mighty tall order.
Long lead times for complex systems means that virtually any weapons system now in production was designed during the Cold War – this does not in itself speak authoritatively to operational relevancy in a post-Cold War environment. And while we may no longer be at daggers drawn with the Soviet Union, Mikhoyan-Gurevich, Sukhoi and Dassault continue to grind out modern fighter designs for export to countries whose interests do not precisely align with our own, while other large, industrial states have humming production lines for indigenous designs based on FSU “Cold War” fighters.
The reported FMC rates and production deficiencies are troubling, but all high tech aviation programs experience birthing pains; witness the ongoing drama attending to the roll out of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner (unit cost : $150-200 million for 858 firm orders) . But whenever media mavens – people who did not bat an eye when $787 billion dollars of “stimulus” went missing from your childrens’ paychecks and carved in stone on the national debit sheet – need a trusty source to provide informed criticism of expensive, high tech fighters, Pierre Sprey can be relied upon.
Sprey spent 20 years in DoD ending back in 1986, and was one of the lead advocates of such simple, lightweight designs as the F-16 and A-10 before pursuing his real passion: Music. His design preferences can be found here * (links to a pdf document), and can be summarized as “more is better.” Sprey prefers flooding the battlespace with smaller, cheaper fighters, approvingly citing the success of US Air Force P-51s over Me-262s in the European Theater of Operations.
Quantity has a quality all its own, and there is an argument to be made for “more is better,” but most of those who cite Sprey’s expertise approvingly – noted military analyst Bill Moyers * among them – do not typically tend to make those kinds of arguments. And at the high end of warfare, expeditionary forces can not be expected to deploy in the kind of numbers that allowed single-engine prop fighters to “bounce” twinjet Messerschmidt’s in the landing pattern. Missiles count too, much more now than in towards the late 80s, which is when Sprey’s lethality analysis trails off, and just as microprocessor technology really came into its own.
The F-16 and A-10 aircraft were and are wonderful weapons systems, but they have always operated under an umbrella of air supremacy provided by top end fighters like the F-15 Eagle. That airframe and its capabilities are now nearly 40 years old, bearing roughly the same relationship to fifth generation air combat as did the Brewster Buffalo to the F-15.
Tremendous maneuver advantages accrue to those that can sweep the air above a battlefield, and the F-22 does so better than any other design. One hundred and eighty seven is, however, too few to do so persistently in an away game.
* 09-08-2018 Links Gone; no replacements found – Ed.
** 09-08-2018 Original link gone; replacement found – Ed.