Sometime in the next dozen days, President Obama will make his first big decision about America’s future military capabilities. The fiscal 2009 defense authorization act requires the President to tell the Congress by March 1 whether the nation’s interest is best served by purchasing more F-22 fighters, or ceasing production. If he decides to end the program, contractor Lockheed Martin will begin laying off workers almost immediately, as will dozens of suppliers. The Air Force will have to make do with the 183 planes it has already ordered.
I don’t normally discuss defense spending in the first person, because it undercuts the image of objectivity to which we analysts all aspire. But after writing about why the F-22 is needed for a dozen years — more than I have discussed any other weapons program — I want to make this last commentary before the President’s decision personal. What follows is not a discussion about jobs, or politics, or America’s place in the world. It is about the role the F-22 plays in our war plans, and what would happen to our soldiers and sailors and marines if it were not available in sufficient numbers.
The greatest gift that has been given to America’s warfighters in my lifetime is command of the air. That phrase — “command of the air” — is the way the first great exponent of air power described the ability to control and use the air space above our own country and the other nations of the world. Command of the air is the central, indispensable mission of the F-22. It is the reason why the plane is stealthier than any other aircraft in the world, why it is more maneuverable, why it is more fuel efficient at high speeds, and why it is crammed with more sensors and computing power than any plane of similar size. Command of the air is also why it costs so much — about $150 million for each additional plane.
What does that high cost get us? An Air Force that can use all its other planes in wartime without fear of horrendous losses. An Army that can continue to operate, as it has over the last 50 years, without suffering any casualties from hostile aircraft. And a defense posture that can deter war without threatening the use of nuclear weapons. Every potential aggressor in the world knows that if it faces the F-22 in aerial combat it will lose, and that if the F-22 is sent to attack targets in its nation, the targets will be destroyed. Our enemies cannot see the plane with their radars, and they cannot catch it with their fighters. They are defenseless against it, and will remain so for decades to come.
No other weapon in our arsenal provides that kind of defense and that kind of deterrence. The F-35 joint strike fighter will deliver similar stealthiness, but it lacks the agility and awareness of F-22. That is why the two planes were designed to operate together — because there are many things F-22 can do that F-35 cannot. Which makes the F-22 a bargain in a way that tanks and destroyers will never be. It enables the success of all the other weapons and warfighters in the joint force. But if our nation is to benefit fully from the promise of the F-22 then we must buy enough to cover the world, and 183 planes simply isn’t enough to do that.
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