The Air Force's F-22 Raptor has won a reprieve from the Senate Armed Services Committee. As Aviation Week reports, the panel has approved funding for 20 additional stealth fighters, at a time when some Pentagon officials wanted to "cap" the Raptor fleet at 180 aircraft.
However, the reprieve may be short-lived, and it comes at a price. As part of a defense authorization plan approved yesterday, the committee designated funds that could be used to shut down the F-22 assembly line, if the next administration decides to end Raptor production.
Additionally, the defense bill contained no money for another high-priority aircraft program, the C-17 transport. The spending plan submitted by the Bush Administration for Fiscal Year 2009 contained no provision for 15 additional C-17s, requested by the Air Force. Unfortunately for the service, the armed services committee sided with the While House on the airlifter issue.
The baseline defense authorization legislation was adopted unanimously by the committee, Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said May 1, adding: "We adopted the numbers that were sent over by the administration."
Those numbers included funding for an additional 20 F-22 stealth jet fighters. The authorizing committee also approved $497 million either for advanced procurement of F-22s or for shutting the manufacturing line down. "That either/or decision will be made by the next president," Levin said.
Virginia Senator John Warner, who appeared with Levin at a press conference, said he would personally support continuing the F-22 program, but emphasized that the final decision will rest with the next president. The Air Force's first operational Raptor wing is based at Langley AFB in Mr. Warner's home state.
The USAF has waged an intense battle for more F-22s, and the Senate decision represents a clear win for the fifth-generation fighter. But it could be a Pyrrhic victory. At $180-330 million a copy (depending on whose numbers you use), the Raptor is the most costly fighter in Air Force history. And with the service facing severe recapitalization issues in its aircraft fleet, money spent on the F-22 means less funding for other programs, including the C-17.
In fact, yesterday's Senate vote could be the last procurement "hurrah" for the F-22. Buying 20 additional Raptors will bring the total inventory to 200. That's well below the 331 requested by the Air Force, but slightly more than the 187 advocated by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. There are no indications that the next administration, Democratic or Republican, is prepared to buy another 130 F-22s. So. the $497 million referenced by Mr. Levin may well be used to shut down the production facility.
Obviously, the Air Force and the Raptor's primary contractor, Lockheed-Martin, would like to keep the assembly line open, hoping that there might be more money for additional F-22s in the future. But efforts to sustain production may also force the Pentagon to revisit a thorny issue: F-22 exports.
Australia, Japan and Israel have all expressed strong interest in the state-of-the-art fighter. But the Air Force remains adamantly opposed to Raptor exports, to avoid sharing advanced stealth and avionics technology with foreign countries--even key U.S. allies. Selling the fighter overseas would also require repeal of a federal law, which bars exports of the F-22.
Without action by the White House and Senate, the Raptor production line in Marietta, Georgia would have begun shutting down this fall. With a commitment to buy 20 additional aircraft, the closure will be delayed until 2009 or early 2010. At least 2000 jobs at Lockheed-Martin's Marietta plant are tied directly to the F-22.
On the C-17 issue, Senator Levin said the lack of funding for additional aircraft "did not mean the the committee thinks the military has enough airlift capability." He suggested there are "other options" for meeting the airlift requirement, but did not offer details.
Mr. Levin's comment may have been a reference to the on-going C-5 refurbishment program, designed to improve the efficiency and mission readiness of the aging transport. But the upgrade effort is already billions of dollars over budget and behind schedule. Making matters worse, cost overruns have forced the USAF to reduce the number of C-5s receiving new engines, the most important element of the upgrade program.
While buying the 15 additional C-17s would not erase our airlift shortfall, it would ease the burden on strategic airlift units stretched thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with other global commitments. The military's airlift shortage has been particularly evident over the past year, during the effort to ship Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicles to the war zone. With C-17s handling many of those missions, the Pentagon has outsourced other cargo missions to Russian and Ukranian heavy-lift transports--assets that might not be available in future conflicts.
In an ideal world, the Air Force, the Administration and Congress wouldn't be forced to choose between F-22s and C-17s. But in an era of ever-tightening procurement budgets, that's the choice that the USAF (and our elected leaders) had to make. Did they make the right call? The F-22 remains one of the Air Force's top priorities, but with the demands now facing our military, buying those additional C-17s would make more sense.
But then again, no one ever accused politicians of being careful stewards of our tax dollars. There's plenty of pork in the defense bill that was passed yesterday, including another $430 million for Ted Kennedy's "back-up" engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, a power plant the Air Force doesn't want. The decision to build more F-22s doesn't fall in that category, but it may not represent the right defense choice, either.