The F-22: The Plane that Will Never Die (Online)

Lockheed Martin has purchased ad space on a number of nonpartisan, politically oriented websites, with many of the ads promoting funding for the F-22 fighter plane. Each presents some information about the company’s position and links back to a web page that makes the full case. The banner ads run in parallel with print ads in the Washington Post and in political newsletters.

When did I write those words? Not this week or last, or even this year or last — they date back to September of 1999, when Lockheed Martin was struggling to get the first production versions of the plane funded and was running ads on a couple of sites I was working on (I looked all over for a copy of the actual banner but to no avail). But they might as well have come out this week, since the F-22 Raptor is once again refusing to go gently into the darkness, at least if its corporate and congressional backers have anything to say in the matter.

And it’s turned into a fight over more than “just” a couple of billion dollors; Defense Secretary Gates and President Obama seem to view funding more of the stealthy air-superiority fighters as a test of their resolve to bring Pentagon-style pork-barrel spending under control, and a Senate vote to route enough dollars in the defense appropriation bill to build a relative handful of additional F-22s could well bring the president to exercise his first veto.

Fortunately, we in the public get to make up our own minds, and the internet of course comes charging over the hill to our rescue, cavalry-style. If you’re looking for good, clear military cases for and against building more F-22s, you can’t do better than checking out Mark Bowden’s Atlantic Monthly article arguing for more and Fred Kaplan’s very effective response (Kaplan in a nutshell — it’s hard to imagine too many geopolitical scenarios in which our having an extra 20% of this one particular type of aircraft is going to make enough of a difference to justify the cost of building them).

For a more wide-ranging discussion, try the archived version of this morning’s Diane Rehm show, which features several experts going through most of the claims for and against expanding the F-22 fleet. A particular treat — one of the panelists kept repeating some of the more commonly heard arguments in favor of the plane, but a couple of the other folks on the show had enough experience covering the Pentagon to have run into most of them before, but for past (and always very expensive) weapons systems. First it was the (nonexistent) bomber gap, then the (nonexistent) missile gap, and now here comes a good old-fashioned fighter gap — one conveniently in the future, too, where imaginary enemies loom large. Where’s a proper mineshaft gap when we need one?


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • While I’m not necessarily for or against this particular purchase, in general, we shouldn’t wait until someone passes us before we try to catch up. When it comes to military power, it would be smart for us to stay in a comfortable lead even if it’s somewhat expensive. If the F-22 isn’t worthless, then periodically purchasing some is a good idea. You really don’t want to go ten or fifteen years and THEN buy some when all of your vendors have archived the drawings and nobody has made the parts in over a decade.

    But I’m sure Obama has thought of this and will spend the money more wisely and won’t just give it to people to eat…

  • Bolie, good to hear from you. For me, it’s really a question of priorities — one of the speakers on that NPR show earlier today mentioned, for example, that current F-22 pilots are getting about 1/3 of the flight training hours that American pilots have normally gotten per month since the start of the jet age. Why? Because we’re underfunding training and maintenance. Where would the $2 billion to buy the additional planes have come from? It wasn’t a new appropriation; they were going to rob the training and maintenance budget…

    Here’s the thing: military procurement is ALWAYS a tradeoff between the thing you’d like to have and the thing you’d LOVE to have. Case in point: the XB-70 Valkyrie, an early-1960s Mach 3 bomber that would have been AWESOME — except that Russian anti-aircraft missiles would have been a lot cheaper to build, and ICBMs were a better alternative, and the Pentagon ultimately decided to spend that money in other ways.

    In the case of the F-22, we’re going to be buying a couple of thousand of the F-35 over the next decade, a newer airplane which is only slightly less capable air-to-air but is a MUCH better bomb-truck, which is what we keep actually needing our planes to be. We can’t have everything, so it comes down to trying to get the best mix of things.

    Besides, the air will belong to robots soon enough…