TCS Daily

F-22 Go Ahead Puts Fighters' Best Foot Forward

By TCS Daily - August 28, 2001 12:00 AM

Faced with several options on how to modernize the nation's aging complement of fighters, the Pentagon on Aug. 15 put its best foot forward, moving into production the stealthy F-22, the fighter most critical for the wars of the future. The task that remains, though, is to rationalize the balance of the nation's pricey tactical air programs with comparably wise decisions.

Projections about future wars suggest fighters will face bigger threats than they did in past conflicts such as Kosovo or the Gulf War: Long-range missiles could threaten the bases and carriers from which the fighters fly, for instance, and U.S. adversaries will have better radar and air defenses with which to detect U.S. planes. Nonetheless, in the coming decades, fighters will remain essential for preserving U.S. superiority against other countries' aircraft and for ground-attack missions. The F-22, on which the U.S. Air Force is to spend some $60 billion for 295 planes, is a smart investment for these missions. More than other fighters such as the Navy's F-18 E/F, the F-22 promises to:

  • Preserve the air superiority the U.S. has maintained since World War II. Because the F-22 is stealthy - poorly visible by enemy radar - from all directions, can fly fast without turning on its visible afterburners, and features the most advanced avionics, it promises to dominate other countries' fighter aircraft and seize control of the air for U.S. forces.
  • Permit the U.S. to operate from bases and in airspace to which foes attempt to restrict U.S. access. Its stealth promises to protect it from advanced surface-to-air missiles of the sort Russia has sold to China. Such missiles pose a grave risk to almost all current U.S. aircraft.
  • Allow long-range stealthy bombers to operate during the daytime. Because the F-22 promises to sweep the skies of enemy fighters, it could conduct operations during the daytime, clearing a path for stealthy bombers otherwise restricted to nighttime missions.

  • Going ahead with F-22 production has another advantage as well. At a time of great attrition in the defense-industrial base, the decision secures the future of a litany of small suppliers working with Lockheed Martin and Boeing on the aircraft.

    Yet despite these benefits from the F-22, the nation's vision for fighter-aircraft programs is not healthy overall. Most problematic is the cost: As President Bush has warned, the services' allotment of $340 billion to three different fighters is excessive.

    There are ways to cut that sum and also make U.S. air power more effective. Among the options:
  • Navy: Cut by half the Navy's proposed purchase of some 550 non-stealthy F-18 E/Fs and accelerate development of the Navy Joint Strike Fighter as well as maritime unmanned combat air vehicles. This will get stealth onto aircraft carrier decks sooner than currently planned.
  • Air Force: Buy more F-22s to simplify operations and maintenance for the Air Force, while providing it with a more versatile aircraft.

  • The result: A rationalized tactical air program and cost savings that could be put towards space capabilities such as radar satellites or towards building up long-range, stealthy bombers and other aircraft that could operate independent of vulnerable bases.

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