Raptor’s Roost

The Air Force's premier fighter makes its overseas debut, but there's a hitch.

Imagine the surprise several Air Force F-22 Raptor pilots must have felt when several hours into a Feb. 10 trans-Pacific flight their electronic navigation and communications systems went dead. The most sophisticated and expensive fighter aircraft ever built was foiled not by some clever enemy, but by a software malfunction that occurred when the plane crossed the international date line en route to Japan on the Raptors' maiden overseas deployment. Pilots tried rebooting the systems, but nothing worked. With the fighters effectively deaf and blind, the mission was aborted and tanker aircraft escorted the fighters to Hawaii for troubleshooting and repairs.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Loyd S. "Chip" Utterback, commander of the 13th Air Force at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, characterized the problem in a statement as "a minor issue."

The Air Force has a lot riding on the Raptor program with each aircraft already costing about $135 million (more than $300 million when research and development costs are factored in). Neither the Air Force nor Defense Department contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., the F-22's builder, has explained the reasons for the software failure or the costs associated with fixing it. The aircraft were repaired and flown to Japan a week later. "When you've got a system like the F-22 with such complex software and avionics, it's almost impossible to thoroughly test everything," says Thomas P. Christie, who served as Defense's director of operational test and evaluation from 2001 to 2005.

"We ran all kinds of extensive testing on the F-22 at Edwards and Nellis [Air Force bases] in the late 1990s and we had all kinds of avionics problems that really slowed the program," says Christie, who prior to his job as chief weapons tester at Defense served nine years as director of the operational evaluation division at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research and development center in Alexandria, Va.

"It's a good thing they found [the glitch] when they did," he adds. Had the pilots lost navigation and communications systems during a military operation or even in bad weather, the results could have been disastrous.

More worrisome to Christie is that the F-22's sophisticated sensors might not be fully effective on battlefields such as those in Iraq. Air Combat Command chief Gen. Ronald E. Keys told Aviation Week and Space Technology in January that intense jamming against improvised explosive devices could corrupt radio traffic and blind some surveillance sensors. The F-22 has not been tested under similar circumstances, so it's not clear how it would perform. But it can't have been a good sign when fighters operating in the Chesapeake Bay recently found their sensors overwhelmed by the radar emissions of Navy ships operating nearby.

"There are so many electronic devices around the world," Christie says, that such electronic problems so far into the procurement are deeply troubling. The Air Force has purchased more than 80 aircraft of 183 planned.

Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, puts it more bluntly: "It is clear this hound is not ready to hunt. All of these problems should have been known and fixed years ago."

There are no plans to keep the Raptors in Japan beyond a few months, or to send them to Iraq or Afghanistan. They are set to be deployed in Alaska and Hawaii to boost U.S. air power in the Pacific.

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