There's a full-court press underway to preserve the F-22 Raptor program. Last month, a group of influential Senators sent a letter to President Barack Obama, asking him to extend production of the stealth fighter. Led by Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, the lawmakers claimed that keeping the F-22 assembly line open is "critical to both the national security and economic interests of our country."
The group of 44 senators estimate that extending Raptor production would generate up to $12 billion in new economic activity across the country. As you might have guessed, Mr. Chambliss and Ms. Murray have a particular interest in keeping the program alive; the F-22 is assembled at the Lockheed-Martin plant in Marietta, Georgia, while key airframe components are produced at a Boeing plant near Seattle.
But efforts to "Save the Raptor" extend well beyond Capitol Hill. Supporters can sign an on-line petition, urging Mr. Obama to release funds already authorized for the Raptor program. The F-22 also has its own Facebook page. According the Danger Room's Noah Shachtman reported last week, the website that contains the petition (preserveraptorjobs.com) sits on the server of a high-powered public relations firm in Washington, D.C., that specializes in generating "grass roots support" for major corporations and their causes.
And, with President Obama expected to make his decision in early March, the F-22 battle has reached the op-ed pages of the Washington Post (and other publications). Sunday's edition of the Post featured an opinion piece by Tom Donnelly and Gary Schmitt advocating an additional $20-25 billion a year in defense spending as part of the economic stimulus package. They note that the increase in defense would satisfy Mr. Obama's three requirements for the stimulus spending (timely, targeted and temporary), while preserving thousands of U.S. jobs.
As an example of targeted defense spending, Messrs. Donnelly and Schmitt cite--you guessed it --the F-22 program. In their view, capping Raptor production at 183 aircraft (as senior defense officials have suggested) would be tantamount to "firing" 25,000 American workers directly employed by F-22 production, and the loss of another 50-70,000 jobs through the "trickle down" to various vendors that support the program. With unemployment now at 7.6%, their message is clear for politicians who will determine the F-22's fate.
Meanwhile, the Air Force is quietly doing its part to get more Raptors. Recently, the service announced that it will take the fifth-generation fighter to this year's Paris Air Show. The appearance will mark the first time that the F-22 has appeared at an overseas public venue; until now, the USAF has limited the Raptor's to carefully-controlled deployments at bases in the Far East, hoping to minimize hostile intelligence collection against the aircraft.
But with the F-22 facing an uncertain future, Lockheed and the Air Force have decided that Paris is a gamble worth taking. An impressive showing at the air show--a virtual certainty--would create support for an extended production run and (possibly) foreign sales to such allies as Australia and Japan. A few months ago, USAF officials balked at that possibility, but their decision to take the Raptor to Paris illustrate how the game has changed.
Here's another indicator: David Fulghum of Aviation Week reports that Lockheed-Martin has released proprietary data--previously classified--revealing that the F-22's stealth performance is actually better than originally expected.
The F-22's newly revealed areas of overperformance include a radar cross section that officials will only characterize as "better" than what was asked for. Pentagon officials have said privately that the desired signature from certain critical angles was -40 dBsm., the equivalent radar reflection of a steel "marble." By comparison, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has a signature of -30 dBsm., about the size of a golfball.
Supercruise is at Mach 1.78 rather than Mach 1.5. Acceleration - although company officials would not say from what speed or at what altitude - is 3.05 sec. faster than the requirement of 54 sec. In nonafterburning, full military power, the Raptor can operate at slightly above 50,000 ft. However, it is known that the F-22 opened its aerial battles at about 65,000 ft. during its first joint exercise in Alaska, apparently using afterburner. There is also a mysterious admission that the range of the Raptor's Northrop Grumman/Raytheon active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar has a range 5% greater than expected. That means a cushion of an additional 5-6 mi. of detection range against enemy aircraft and missiles.
Lockheed Martin also makes an economic argument for continuing Raptor production. The F-22 unit cost in a USAF multiyear purchase is $142.6 million (average unit flyaway cost). Initial unit cost of the F-35 will be around $200 million and then start dropping as production continues. In Japan, the decision to indigenously build small numbers of F-15Js and F-2s (a larger F-16 design) drove their cost to roughly $100 million each. The Eurofighter Typhoon would likely cost even more in a small production run.
There is, of course, a certain irony in all of this. A fighter production line that seemed destined for closure a few months ago may remain open for several years, resulting in more F-22s for the USAF and, possibly, foreign customers as well. But it literally took an economic meltdown--and the potential loss of thousands of high-paying defense jobs--to unify supporters and launch a renewed push to save the Raptor.
But this rallying cry is not without its risks. Ultimately, the value of any defense program must be judged by its contributions to national security (and its economic costs) with less concern for the number of workers who will be employed. Based on the economic argument, the Navy committed a major error when it cancelled the DDG-1000 program last year.
Building the new Zumwalt-class destroyers would have meant thousands of jobs at shipyards in Maine and Mississippi, where the new ships would be produced. But with costs rising to an estimated $3 billion a ship--roughly half the cost of an aircraft carrier--and serious questions about the vessel's ability to counter enemy missile attacks, the Navy decided it could no longer afford the DDG-1000, and will end production after only two ships.
Fortunately, the F-22 doesn't have those issues. Despite occasional glitches, the Raptor remains a world-beater and would produce kill ratios of at least 30:1 against the current generation of adversary fighters. The F-22 is also the aircraft best-equipped to operate against the most advanced surface-to-air missiles, including the S-300s en route to Iran.
Will those capabilities be enough to keep the Raptor production line open? We'll know in a few weeks. In the interim, Congress (and the White House) should give strong consideration to a defense stimulus, as part of the overall economic package. Unfortunately, our elected leaders often equate military necessities with defense pork; there's the very real possibility that worthwhile programs--like the F-22--would be accompanied by billions in wasteful spending that do little to enhance national security.
Case in point: Maine's Susan Collins, one of three GOP senators to support the Obama stimulus package, is still fighting for the DDG-1000. When the Navy announced plans to curtail the program, Ms. Collins sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, asking him to rescind the decision until a "thorough analysis" could be conducted.
Never mind that the Navy didn't want the vessel, and the move was nothing but a sop for her home-state shipyard. Senator Collins viewed the DDG-1000 purely in terms of local jobs. There's every chance of repeating that scenario, as politicians consider a defense stimulus.