Scripps Howard News Service November 10, 2005
New jet caught in dog fight
By Tara Copp
WASHINGTON - The U.S. defense community resoundingly agrees that the next-generation F/A-22 Raptor, that Sheppard students will begin training on in 2008, is the most advanced fighter aircraft ever developed.
But that's where the agreements end and debates about "how many, and for what?" begin. Those debates could lead to significant cuts in the program.
The Air Force is clear. It wants 381 Raptors.
But the secretary of defense is clear, too: 381 jets are too many. Last winter, the Pentagon announced budget cuts that would build just 179 aircraft.
Where the numbers will end up is getting hammered now out in the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review. The QDR is an every-four-years internal assessment that determines which weapons are needed to meet the anticipated threats of the next 20 years.
QDR's goal is to make sure the Pentagon's weapons can meet future threats. But that's become a problem for the Raptor: The weapon is so good, no "future threat" exists, analysts said.
"They're just not even in the same century," defense analyst John Pike said of the other nations' fighter jets. Even the most advanced aircraft coming out of potential future adversaries like China "would get shot down before they even got close," said Pike, founder of GlobalSecurity.org.
The Raptor, which was developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., is a dual-engine fighter. The Air Force has received 52 so far. Later this year a Raptor squadron will be deployed overseas.
"It is ready for combat," said Lockheed Martin F/A-22 program director J.R. McDonald.
Wichita Falls has a stake in the Raptor funding debate. The jets themselves will not fly at Sheppard. But bays and bays of Raptor cockpit trainers, fuselage trainers and armament trainers are headed for Wichita Falls, as part of a new $20 million facility under construction on the base. Inside the new 122,000-square-foot facility, student crews will train on how to arm the Raptor and repair its advanced technology.
The costs of air dominance
For years, there's not been an enemy air force or air defenses that U.S. fighters couldn't dominate. But McDonald said those decades of air dominance could one day catch the services off-guard.
"No U.S. serviceman has been attacked from the air since 1953," McDonald said.
"It's something they assume, which becomes very dangerous - they just assume that is going to be the case."
McDonald pulled up map slides of Bosnia and Afghanistan, where he shows that if either of those nations had certain surface missile and air-defense capabilities when the Air Force launched either operation, no U.S. airframe besides the Raptor could have punched through safely and destroyed the defenses, he said. That could have left soldiers on the ground vulnerable to airborne attacks, McDonald said.
Still, Pentagon leadership questions whether 381 are really needed, given the double-punch of the aircraft that has no known equal.
"My guess is that when it is all over, there will be cuts," said defense analyst Larry Korb, with the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. "They've got to pay for all the other things going on, and you can't cut personnel, or operations and maintenance, so you've got to cut it out of procurement."
The Raptor program has cost $41 billion to date.
The "flyaway" costs - what it would cost to build a Raptor if all the prior research and development wasn't counted in the final price tag, would be about $130 million each, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Further complicating the equation is the Joint Strike Fighter, or F-35, which is another next-generation fighter that is getting produced by Lockheed Martin.
The JSF doesn't have the same speed, stealth or maneuverability as the Raptor. But it has affordability, and the plane is getting co-developed by a half-dozen allied nations. It will be produced in Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps variations.
There's a possibility that down the line, JSF crews would come to Sheppard for training too, because the JSF and Raptor share the same engine and many similar technologies.
Recent estimates show the "flyaway" costs of the JSF range between $45 million and $60 million an airframe, largely due to the fact that more than 2,300 are planned for the U.S and its international allied developers. The first plane is scheduled to finish assembly in 2008.
But even the JSF has an uncertain future ahead in this budget, said Chris Hellman, a defense analyst with the Washington, D.C., Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
The Raptor, on the other hand, is hurt by not having international developers, and by having fewer in the works. Because the technology is closely guarded, there's no international co-development. It's solely an Air Force jet, and not having the other services on board "has sometimes made this difficult in the budget battle," said Lockheed Martin's McDonald. But the Air Force is pushing that the air dominance Raptor ensures benefits to all the services, particularly the soldiers on the ground. "It's a joint enabler," McDonald said.
Raptor cuts won't happen without a fight, Hellman said. At seminars and in meetings with reporters, the Air Force uniformly pushes for 381 Raptors.
The program "is their No. 1 priority, bar none," Hellman said. "I see the Air Force opening every single meeting with 'we need the (381 planes).' "
Scripps Howard correspondent Tara Copp can be reached at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2005, Scripps Howard News Service