Send the Raptor to Jurassic Park

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The House Defense Appropriation Subcommittee's vote to cut funding in fiscal year 2000 for production of the F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft was a courageous act. Although the F-22 would be far superior to any air-to-air fighter in the world, it was designed during the Cold War era when potent Soviet air forces roamed the planet. The Raptor was intended to combat two futuristic Soviet fighters that were never built. The F-22 incorporates stealth technologies (making it difficult to detect with radar), cruises (flies without a fuel-guzzling afterburner) at one-and-a-half times the speed of sound, and incorporates advanced electronics. The problem is that the Raptor will merely replace the F-15 -- already probably the best fighter aircraft in the world.

Even if the existing Russian-built MiG-29 and Su-27 and the newEuropean-built Eurofighter are the F-15's rough equivalent (which isdisputed), no aircraft that the Russians, Chinese, or Europeans build wouldprobably survive when flown against an F-15E with upgraded avionics andmissiles and piloted by a well-trained American air crew. Russian aircraftare reasonably good, but Russia's economic crisis severely limits thequantities that can be purchased and the all-important training given topilots. China is modernizing its antiquated air force slowly, and itspilots receive substantially less training than do U.S. pilots. The IraqiAir Force was decimated by the Gulf War, and the Iranian and North Koreanair force's are antiquated. In the future, destitute rogue states will notbe able to afford to buy MiG-29s, Su-27s, Eurofighters, or French Rafales inlarge quantities to contend with the very large U.S. Air Force.

Moreover, no nation in the world can integrate its air operations the waythe United States can. The U.S. airborne warning and control system (AWACS)is an unparalleled device for providing early warning of an attack by enemyfighters and acts as a tremendous force multiplier in air-to-air combat.Thus, the absence of any future near or medium-term threat from an enemy airforce comparable to the U.S. Air Force renders the advance capabilities ofthe F-22 unneeded.

If the Air Force needs anything (and its dominance in Kosovo and the GulfWar indicates that it might not), it needs more ground attack capability.The F-22 only belatedly added a such a capability. In order to maintain itsstealth, the F-22 can carry only two precision-guided munitions internally.

For attacking targets on the ground, larger bombers with greater payloadsare more efficient than smaller fighter aircraft. Furthermore, large landbases in close proximity to any conflict -- which are used by fighteraircraft like the F-22 -- are becoming vulnerable to attacks from enemyballistic missiles. Bombers have a much longer range than tactical fightersand can operate from bases in theater farther from the conflict or even frombases in the United States. Yet the need to pay for the costly F-22 hascaused the fighter generals who run the Air Force to put off introducing anew bomber to replace the aging fleet until well into the next century.

At a per unit cost of $187 million per aircraft, the F-22 would be the mostcostly fighter aircraft ever produced (almost four times the $47 million ofan F-15E). Because of problems in development, the aircraft's cost has morethan doubled and its schedule has slipped. For an aircraft that will beused primarily for attacking ground targets (in the absence of manysignificant air-to-air threats), the F-22 is exorbitantly priced and notoptimally designed for the mission. The United States already has twoexpensive stealth aircraft designed explicitly to attack targets on theground -- the F-117 strike aircraft and the B-2 bomber -- and only needs asmall "silver bullet" force of such aircraft to take out dangerous enemyground-based air defenses and to destroy other targets before such defensesare obliterated. (And the United States certainly doesn't need a stealthyF-22s to escort such stealthy ground attack aircraft to their targets.)Once enemy air defenses are destroyed, non-stealth strike and bomberaircraft can take over the bulk of the air-to-ground missions.

If the U.S. Air Force deems that it needs improvements in tactical fighteraircraft before the Joint Strike Fighter begins to be built in six years, anupgraded F-15E flown by the best trained pilots in the world can remaindominant in air-to-air combat against any adversary for the foreseeablefuture. In an age when success in warfare depends more and more onelectronics and precision weapons, quantum improvements in the air platformsthat carry such devices are less necessary. In addition, unlike the F-22,the F-15E was designed primarily to attack ground targets and onlysecondarily to fight other aircraft. Thus, an upgraded F-15E aircraft fitsbetter with U.S. needs in a post-Cold War world than does the exorbitantlypriced F-22. The money saved by terminating this $70 billion prehistoricbird of prey could be put to better uses.

Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.