F-22 still needed to secure skies

You need to know only one thing about the debate over the F-22 Raptor’s future: It is about whether we secure air superiority for the coming years or risk losing it. The rest is details.

The fighter jet’s immediate fate hangs on the 2010 defense budget. In June a Senate committee including Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss added $1.75 billion to buy seven F-22s. A House committee earlier approved $369 million to go toward a dozen F-22s.

These funds would keep the fighter, the most advanced in the world, alive to face another budget (and possibly to be cleared for export to allies like Japan). If it dies, the last F-22 will probably roll off Lockheed Martin’s assembly line in Marietta in 2012.

President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the entire $500 billion-plus defense budget if it includes F-22 money. Unlike many defense-spending issues, this doesn’t break down on partisan lines. John McCain, to name one Republican, also opposes it.

Make no mistake: The F-22 is faster, stealthier and more agile than any fighter built or conceived. The coming F-35, also built by Lockheed, is designed to complement the F-22 as a cheaper — and less capable — aircraft deployed in larger numbers.

Are there problems with the F-22? Yes. Is it expensive? More than any fighter ever before.

Here’s the real question: Is it necessary? That depends on what you think the future holds.

Some critics deride the F-22 as a Cold War holdover that’s irrelevant to the kinds of low-intensity counterinsurgency missions against outfits like al-Qaida that our military carries out today.

But if Osama bin Laden didn’t get the memo about “the end of history,” neither did Vladimir Putin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il or other thugs world-wide. Sadly, conflict with other nations can’t be ruled out.

Hegemony of the skies has been a crucial U.S. advantage for several decades now. It didn’t prevent Sept. 11. But like our nuclear arsenal — another edge Obama is negotiating away — it is still a powerful deterrent.

That much is clear from the efforts our rivals are making to catch up to us. Anyone who has attended aerospace trade shows over the last several years, as I have, will have been struck by the growing presence of Russian and Chinese aviation firms.

They haven’t bridged the gap yet. But with a sizable lead in such a critical aspect of military might, the message we ought to send them is: Don’t bother.

Even if we’re determined to fight the last war, as Iraq and Afghanistan will soon be, fighters won’t be obsolete. As Mark Bowden, author of “Black Hawk Down,” wrote in a March article in The Atlantic, the drones, surveillance aircraft and other pieces of our modern force can fly Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s skies precisely because of the air supremacy that superior fighters give us.

“This aerial juggernaut enables modern ground-fighting tactics that rely on the rapid movement of relatively small units,” Bowden continued, “because lightly armed, fast-moving forces can quickly summon devastating air support if they encounter a heavy threat.”

Alas, the call to cap production of the F-22 at the 187 already ordered, at a cost of more than $40 billion to date, is being made in a “strategic vacuum,” says aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group.

“I don’t know what the right number is,” Aboulafia says. “But to make an enormous investment like this one and not carefully study the number needed to field a sustainable force over the next few decades … seems foolish. That 187 number has no rationale behind it aside from budgetary concerns.”

And while the budget is at the top of everyone’s mind these days, this isn’t a case of D.C. spendthrifts seeing the light.

I mean, c’mon: The feds have given AIG more than $180 billion — 100 times the Senate’s proposed F-22 funding — to make, well, nothing. Automakers have gotten almost $100 billion. And that $1.75 billion for the F-22 is one-third of 1 percent of the total proposed 2010 defense budget.

Killing the F-22 program in the name of fiscal sanity would be another example of how this administration is penny-wise but trillion-dollar-foolish.

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[...] in July, when Congress was weighing whether to extend production of the F-22 Raptor, one of the frequent arguments against doing so was that top military brass didn’t even want [...]