Scrapping the Raptor
The termination of the F-22 Raptor program at just 187 aircraft inevitably will call U.S. air supremacy -- the salient feature, since World War II, of the American way of war -- into question.
The need for these sophisticated, stealthy, radar-evading planes is already apparent. During Russia's invasion of Georgia, U.S. commanders wanted to fly unmanned surveillance aircraft over the region, and requested that F-22s sanitize the skies so that the slow-moving drones would be protected from Russian fighters or air defenses. When the F-22s were not made available, likely for fear of provoking Moscow, the reconnaissance flights were cancelled.
As the air-defense and air-combat capabilities of other nations, most notably China, increase, the demand for F-22s would likewise rise. And the Air Force will have to manage this small fleet of Raptors over 30 years. Compare that number with the 660 F-15s flying today, but which are literally falling apart at the seams from age and use. The F-22 is not merely a replacement for the F-15; it also performs the functions of electronic warfare and other support aircraft. Meanwhile, Mr. Gates is further postponing the already decades-long search for a replacement for the existing handful of B-2 bombers.
The United States, since World War II, has always had air superiority, and we have only gotten better with each new conflict. If Mr. Gates believes that he can maintain that with Predator drones, he's sadly mistaken. Let's take a look at the fifth generation fighters that are being created right now.
The new MiG being developed by Russia, alongside the new Sukhoi Su-47. What do these planes have in common? They're both designed off of the F-22's stealth package. The Japanese are working on the Mitsubishi ATD-X of which it's principle design is based off of the F-22. They had planned to purchase a number of F-22's from the US government, but Congress has banned the sale of the F-22 to any country. And China is finishing up it's Shenyang J-project fighters and both the J-13 and J-14 are supposed to be online and operational by 2012.
So while we're content to kill the most advanced fighter plane the world will ever see, the world isn't sitting idly by. It's moving forward, and with astonishing speed. Each one of the aircraft above are either based off of the F-22, in some ways including stealth technology, or off of the F-117A Nighthawk. That's the problem with Mr. Gates deciding to kill the F-22 program, and reform the military into a more counter-insurgency force. When you over specialize, you breed in weakness. This nation will always need it's fighters for air superiority, and with an aging fleet of fighter planes, the need is more important than ever to replace those fighters. Both the F-22 and F-35 were the answers. (For reference, the F-14 was put into service in 1974; the F-15 in 1971, though it's strike fighter variant entered service in 1989; the F-16 in 1978; the F/A-18 in 1983, and it's upgrade variant entered service in 1999.) So our aircraft fleet is quite old, and while still quite dependable it's time we take the next step. The F-22 and F-35 are the next steps, but Mr. Gates doesn't see a need, and our guess is neither does the president.
Make no mistake that while our ground forces will upgrade themselves, and specialize themselves for a world moving more towards asymmetrical warfare, the need for air superiority is a must. When we engage hostile nations the phrase "if it flies, it dies" has become synonymous with US fighter pilots, and the weapons they utilize. Mr. Gates is making a very bad decision in killing off the Raptor program. Perhaps he doesn't know just how superior the aircraft is, or maybe he just doesn't care. Either way the nation is about to lose a very valuable asset in our inventory of weapons designed to keep America safe.