A new memoir by retired Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz revisits the decision by then-Secretary Robert Gates to shut down the F-22 Raptor production line well short of the service’s calculated minimum operational requirement. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been tremendously expensive for the United States, both in lives and money. As time goes on, we may find the largest cost of those conflicts was to cause such an intense focus on counterinsurgency warfare that our higher-end capabilities were allowed to atrophy. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States has considered Russia and China “near peer competitors” — in short, not quite the superpower America is. That situation is changing more rapidly than many planners anticipated even a decade ago. China fielded its first operational stealth aircraft years before expected. While they are still having some growing pains, this development invalidated some of the reasoning behind shutting down the F-22 — that the U.S. Air Force was largely untouchable.
…Schwartz’s predecessor General Mike Moseley “never gave up in his principled attempts to get those 381 F-22s” the book states. That push ended up getting Moseley fired along with his civilian counterpart, Air Force Secretary Mike Wynn. After the culling, the brass thought that the new bomber was simply too important and that the chances of winning both the F-22 and bomber arguments with Gates, who was staunchly averse to building high-priced weapons that couldn’t be used in Iraq or Afghanistan, was next to zero.
Schwartz, in an attempt to see if a reduced F-22 production number would be palatable to the Defense Secretary, executed an independent assessment that ended up stating 243 F-22s was the absolute minimum the force could get by with. But Gates balked at that number as well.
In the end, the production line was shut down after only 188 Raptors were built. The F-22 is designed to ensure air supremacy by sweeping adversaries’ aircraft from the skies. For context, it is assuming that role from the 1970s-vintage F-15 Eagle, of which the Air Force procured nearly 900 over the decades since its debut. That number does not include the 225 F-15E “Strike Eagles” specially designed with more focus on ground attack missions than air-to-air operations. The F-15 production line continues to operate today, fielding orders from major U.S. allies more than a dozen years after the United States bought its last Eagle.
In short, the U.S. bought far too few Raptors, and now has no option to build more (the production line having been dismantled). The Air Force was able to replenish its F-15 fleet over the years, purchasing newer aircraft and retiring older airframes. This will not be an option for the F-22 design, as reopening production is cost-prohibitive. As a result of this shortfall, the Air Force has kept a large number of F-15s in service as teammates to the Raptor. But this generates the cost of maintaining four distinct fighter platforms: the F-22, the F-15, the smaller F-16 (most known for its use by the Thunderbird Demonstration Team), and the new F-35 attack aircraft. The F-15 and F-16 were built concurrently as a “high-low” mix: a smaller number of highly capable F-15s to defeat enemy air forces, and considerably more of the less capable (and less expensive) F-16s to operate in a mostly “permissive” environment. The same approach was intended for the F-22 and F-35. With the premature closure of the F-22 line, the Air Force has to choose between keeping the F-15s around longer (adding to budget strain), or shifting some of their air superiority mission to the larger (but less capable) F-16 fleet until sufficient numbers of stealthy F-35s are flying.
This was not the first time the U.S. shot itself in the foot while buying a major aircraft system. The B-2 bomber, which critics love to point out cost more per unit than any aircraft in history, was originally supposed to be a fleet of 100 aircraft. Rattled by the program cost at a time the Cold War was winding down, Congress funding the Air Force for only 21 (of which only 19 are in operation today). After 9/11 the system proved far more versatile than its original mission of nuclear combat with the Soviet Union, flying incredibly long missions non-stop from the U.S. to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. Instead of 16 nuclear weapons, the aircraft can carry up to 80 satellite-guided 500-pound bombs, accurately hitting scores of targets on each mission. Such capability creates high demand, but with such a small fleet these demands have worn out the B-2 force and the Air Force is scrambling to produce a replacement system as mentioned in the book excerpt above. It’s arguable an original fleet of 100 aircraft would have reduced or eliminated the need for another design procurement this soon.
But such is the “penny-wise, pound-foolish” ways of government acquisition. The F-22 and B-2 are arguably the most advanced and capable aircraft ever built — and no more of either can be produced because the facilities have shut down. It has been 65 years since an American soldier was lost to enemy airpower — in 1953, during the Korean War. Three generations of military planners have been able to reasonably assume the U.S. would control the skies in any conflict they foresaw.
Our investment decisions in recent years may soon call that assumption into serious question. Penny-wise, pound-foolish is bad, but not nearly as bad as penny-wise, blood-foolish.