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F-22, the Gates Factor

June 28, 2009 (by Eric L. Palmer) - The debate over the F-22 has shown that some have no limit to the amount of ignorance they can acquire. Since there are a large amount of people that can’t explain why they want to cancel it or keep it going, finding true clarity is a challenge.

USAF F-22A block 30 no. 05-4106 from the 7th FS from Holloman AFB, drops a GBU-32 during a Combat Hammer mission on May 6th, 2009 during the two-week large-scale evaluation. Combat Hammer is also known as a WSEP for air-to-ground weapons. [USAF photo by Capt. Christopher Johnson]

Many people that want to cancel the F-22 are honest in their belief. It is a cold war jet. It is wildly expensive. It is a poster child for a defense establishment that is out of control. Some of these people are even thankful that Secretary of Defense Gates is at the helm to save us from ruin. Believing this, leaves out some other key issues.

For instance, Mr. Gates states that he is just ending the program of record with the F-22 - a program limit that was set by the last administration. This is true. Yet, in his version of don’t-ask-don’t-tell, Mr. Gates put a gag order on his senior staff when forming up his version of the 2010 budget. Actual studies on what determined a proper F-22 force mix for the United States Air Force (USAF), were ignored. So if the experts - like the head of the USAF Air Combat Command (ACC) - state that little real analysis on proper F-22 numbers were considered in the decision to stop F-22 production, should we worry? According to one study, the program of record is high risk, the number that USAF wants offers the lowest risk and a number in between is medium risk. Risk of what? Losing air superiority in a future conflict? Shouldn’t something this important include a more honest debate?

Mr. Gates has some serious credibility issues to get over when stating that the F-22 production needs to be ended. First he ignores a lot of other programs that are gold-plated-expensive and are of questionable worth. For example, the Navy is going forward with a corvette class ship with the price tag of a destroyer known as the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The creators of this program estimated that it would cost around half of what it does now. The U.S. Navy didn’t have any realistic evidence to back up their original estimates during a recent and embarrassing explanation before Congress. There will be serious problems making this program work because the Navy has not down-selected one of the two vendors yet. The U.S. taxpayer will be stuck with moving forward into production, two variants of an expensive, underwhelming Navy ship that has questionable worth.

Another money pit is a destroyer with a nuclear cruiser price tag known as the Zumwalt class that is about as useful as a civil war ironclad. Somewhere along the way, the U.S. Navy forgot that air power was what allows sea dominance since World War 2. In other words, we have battleship admirals in our midst all while trying to pay for things that we really need.

Next Gates has decided that the F-35 will solve all our future tactical air needs. We should somehow “move on” and accept this. Billions are going to be spent buying hundreds of “mistake jets” since the F-35 program only has around two percent of its flight testing done. They will be “mistake jets” because there isn’t enough information available to validate their production methods. All we have at this time is hope.

The F-35 program was supposed to perform over 300 test flights in fiscal year 2009. So far there have only been a handful. The plan calls for over 1200 test flights in fiscal year 2010 . Add to this the make-up work from FY 2009. As it is now, there are still so many unknowns about the F-35 program. Yet Mr. Gates insists the F-35 is some kind of a solution for the defense of the nation. The United States Marine Corps (USMC) still believes in magic by doubling down on their bet that they will see initial operating capability (IOC) with the F-35B in the year 2012.

The U.S. Navy and USAF are following along with the hopes and dreams of the F-35 all while facing a fighter shortage in the coming years. Highly capable aircraft that are currently in production like the F-15, F-16 and F-18 are being ignored by the services. What gets even more scary is that once the F-22 has done its work, non-stealth conventional fighter aircraft can do the rest of an air campaign. Certainly in the case of the USAF, they have not provided a serious justification for the F-35.

What makes this even more interesting is the following. The USAF has figured out how to maintain and sustain the F-22 out at active flying squadrons. This knowledge appearing four years after F-22 IOC is probably normal. The F-22 was designed with ease of maintenance in mind. Only 5 percent of maintenance tasks require refurbishment of the low observable material. Recently, the aircraft performed 100 percent mission capable (MC) rates during a major exercise. That means they put up 100 percent of their scheduled flights. So much for the myth of not being able to maintain the aircraft during operations.

The F-22 has gotten less expensive during its production with fewer defects. As long as low rates of production in a stop-start dance keep going like they have in the past years, price per unit can never be realized to full effect. In Mr. Gates confused thinking, F-22s are more expensive if you build more. F-35s are less expensive if you build more. The low price that we are promised with the F-35 has not been proven yet. It is not unreasonable to demand proof of F-35 performance and price based on real testing as opposed to willingly accepting what is on a PowerPoint slide.

Even many advocates of the F-22 aren’t always up on the reasons for buying it. Like the F-35, blind faith is expected to make the program a winner. Unless one can explain how the AN/ALR-94 on the F-22 works, one’s grasp of F-22 combat capability is lacking. What makes the F-22 an awesome killing machine including the ability to take out high-end surface-to-air missile threats, can not be displayed at an airshow. This sensor ability combined with F-22 survivability will be the only kind of platform one will be able to take into a high threat no-fly zone with a severely limited set of rules of engagement.

In the end, the debtor U.S. Federal budget has a lot of disasters to wade through. The FY2011 defense budget should be even more destructive to U.S. national defense posture than FY2010. One needs to reconsider if Mr. Gates is the person to pull us through all of this. So far, his opinions of what kind of weapons systems add value to the defense of the United States are lacking. Certainly at this juncture, he has made all the wrong decisions for the air power roadmap.

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