The Air Force's F-22 fighter program is taking fire from all sides.
Defense weapons programs are notorious for blowing budgets and busting deadlines, so it's not surprising that the Air Force's newest fighter aircraft, the F-22A Raptor, has a long track record of doing both. But recent concerns about the aircraft's performance and an unconventional plan to fund the purchase of future planes are creating headaches for the program's advocates.
Two decades in the making, the supersonic stealth fighter jet is the Air Force's top acquisition priority and a central component of its plans to recapitalize its aging tactical aircraft fleet. The plane, although widely considered to be an engineering marvel, has long been a lightning rod for criticism, almost since the program's inception in 1986 in the waning days of the Cold War. Critics contend it is both unaffordable (the estimated cost per plane has ballooned from $149 million to more than $350 million when research and development costs are factored in) and unnecessary, since it was designed for air-to-air combat with fighters from the former Soviet Union. To make the plane more versatile, the Air Force in the 1990s added bombing capability to the program requirements, further driving up costs and, according to some experts, compromising the plane's stealthy profile. What's more, because the plane is not designed primarily as a bomber, its payload is a fraction of that of other bombers, raising more questions about the utility of the added capability.
While the Air Force originally intended to purchase 750 planes, that number has steadily eroded as security requirements have evolved and the funding landscape has shifted. The Air Force now maintains it needs 381 aircraft to meet future mission requirements, but current Pentagon budget plans call for the purchase of only 183 aircraft at a total cost of about $65 billion. Sixty-six planes already have been delivered to the Air Force and dozens more are in various stages of production.
Michael Sullivan, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office, told both houses of Congress in March that the F-22A business case is "unexecutable" in large part because of the 198-aircraft gap between the stated need and the Pentagon's purchasing plans. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee March 16, Sullivan said, "DoD has not presented an investment strategy for tactical aircraft systems that measures needs, capability gaps, alternatives and affordability." In addition, he said, "Over the 19 years that the aircraft has been in development, the world has changed and the capabilities the Air Force once needed and planned for the F-22A no longer satisfy today's needs."
Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana framed the issue more bluntly at a Senate Appropriations Committee Defense panel hearing two weeks later: "It seems many of the [Air Force] senior leaders are reluctant to recognize that waves of Russian fighters will not be coming over the horizon anytime soon." Burns told Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley that "The senior leadership of the Air Force seems to be detached from the reality of what [the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are] all about."
Despite such misgivings, the program has had considerable support from Congress and the last three administrations. The Air Force now is requesting that Congress approve an unconventional procurement approach for the remaining 60 aircraft. It wants to purchase parts for 20 aircraft each year from 2007 through 2009, but the assembly of the first 20 aircraft won't begin until 2008, thereby freeing up funds for other critical programs in 2007. It's a plan that both GAO and the Congressional Budget Office have warned Congress against to avoid unforeseen problems with the program.
And unforeseen problems aren't out of the question. In December 2005, the same month the Air Force certified the F-22 as combat ready, program officials testing the aircraft discovered structural flaws in titanium parts that were not properly treated by heat to withstand cracks during flight, when the airframe is under tremendous stress. Air Force officials maintain the flaws do not pose a safety risk. Nevertheless, dozens of aircraft will have to undergo expensive repairs. Defense News reported in May that fixing the defects could end up adding $1 billion to the program.
Fueling critics' complaints about the aircraft's affordability, in late March, the Air Force released an accident investigation report about a mishap that occurred last October when a mechanic at Hill Air Force Base in Utah removed a 5-inch metal pin from the landing gear of one of the jets before takeoff. The mechanic inadvertently dropped the pin, which was sucked into one of the plane's two engines, causing $6.7 million in damage. Investigators deemed the pilot and the mechanic were not to blame, but faulted an inadequate training manual.
Compounding concerns about the program, in April, the Washington-based nonprofit Center for Defense Information sponsored a symposium at which two independent researchers presented highly critical data about the aircraft's capability. Pierre M. Sprey, an aircraft design expert instrumental in the development of several military aircraft models, including the F-16 tactical fighter, characterized the F-22A as a "failure" on several counts, including cost.
"The way you defeat the enemy is by having an airframe [of which] you can afford a few thousand," Sprey says. In combat, numbers matter, and the Air Force has painted itself into a corner where it won't have enough aircraft for a long air war, he says.
What's more, the focus on stealth technology is misplaced in air-to-air fighter aircraft, he says: "Stealth has no application in fighter combat." Because all fighters must turn on their radar to locate any potential enemy aircraft beyond visual range, they are by definition visible to other aircraft.
James P. Stevenson, the former editor of the Navy Fighter Weapons School's Top Gun journal and author of two books chronicling military aircraft procurement failures, echoed Sprey's criticism. The F-117A Nighthawk strike aircraft was the first to employ stealth technology, yet Stevenson points out that two were shot down during the Kosovo campaign because they were observed by Serbia's 1950s-era radar technology. Addition-ally, he points out that the F-22 is substantially larger than the F-16 and other fighter aircraft, making it a significant visual target, even if the plane's radars aren't turned on.
"The biggest target in the sky is always the first to die," he says. Stevenson also points out that the F-22A's canopy, structured for maximum speed, sacrifices the pilot's rearward visibility-a factor that historically has been critical in air-to-air combat.
The Raptor's canopy has other problems as well. In early April, a pilot at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia was preparing to launch when an indicator light showed the canopy failed to lock. Following standard procedure, the pilot toggled the canopy switch on and off. The canopy locked, but then it failed to unlock. Five hours, four firefighters and one chainsaw later, the pilot was released from the cockpit. Technicians from Lockheed Martin Corp., the plane's manufacturer, could not figure out how to open the recalcitrant 360-pound canopy, so specially equipped firefighters had to be called in to saw it off and free the pilot. The cost of the mishap: $182,205, not counting the lost work hours.
As Sullivan told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 28, "Despite the department's repeated declaration [that] recapitalizing the aging tactical Air Force is a top priority, it continues to follow an acquisition strategy that results in higher costs, lower quantities and late deliveries. Their strategy must change, particularly given today's fiscal and national security realities."
The F-22 fighter acquisition program was started in 1986, during the Cold War. At that time, the Air Force intended to buy several hundred aircraft. Over time, costs grew and the Air Force cut the number of fighters it intended to buy.
|1986||750||$90 billion||$149 million|
|2006||183||$65 billion||$355 million|
Source: Center for Defense Information