On September 8, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told a television station in Virginia Beach that he wanted to buy more F-22 fighters for the Air Force, a move that would require reopening the program’s production line. Romney was stumping for votes in the southeastern corner of the Old Dominion that contains one of the largest concentrations of military bases in the world — including the headquarters of the Air Combat Command that operates all of the existing F-22s. Nobody should take comments made in the midst of a close election race as ironclad commitments, but Romney’s idea has some merit.
The F-22 Raptor was conceived in the final decade of the Cold War as an unbeatable air-superiority fighter that would assure U.S. dominance of global airspace for 50 years into the future. At the time, U.S. military planners were mainly concerned with new fighters being developed by the Soviet Union. The Soviets are gone now, but in the two decades since they disappeared, a variety of new challenges to U.S. air dominance have appeared, most notably China’s investment in high-end tactical aircraft and the global proliferation of agile surface-to-air missiles. The stealthy F-35 fighter being developed for the Air Force and two other services should be able to deal with those dangers — its design is based in large part on F-22 technology — but it is worth noting that the two planes were supposed to operate as part of a high-low mix in which the F-22 would take the lead during the early days of war.
One fact not in dispute is that the Obama Administration terminated F-22 production well short of the Air Force’s stated requirement. The original Cold War objective was to buy 750 Raptors, a goal that was trimmed back to 339 in two Clinton-era quadrennial defense reviews following the Soviet collapse. The number at which production was actually terminated last year, 187, had no connection to future warfighting plans or operational requirements. Air Force leaders warned the administration that buying so few Raptors would be risky, but defense secretary Robert Gates dismissed their concerns and the White House was too preoccupied with a faltering economy to pay attention. The last Raptor came off the line in December of 2011, by which time the supply chain was already disappearing.
Therein lies the main question mark about candidate Romney’s proposal. There’s little doubt that America would be a stronger, better-protected country if the Air Force had more F-22s, but how precisely would a Romney Administration go about reconstituting the capacity to build the planes? The Lockheed Martin facilities where the center and forward sections of the F-22 were once built have been reconfigured for F-35 work, and the Boeing facility where the aft section was built is now absorbed in manufacturing the 787 commercial transport. The tooling for the F-22 has been stored away, but you can’t mothball workers so they have moved on to new pursuits. Reconstituting production thus would cost considerably more than the $900 million figure that Lockheed cited to prospective Japanese buyers several years ago, because the line is gone and the supplier base has disbanded.
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