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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Ride into the Danger Zone

The Air Force’s much-criticized F-22 has been a favorite subject of much of the blogosphere, particularly since Mark Bowden’s feature article praising the fighter appeared in the March issue of The Atlantic . Tuesday night the discussion went mainstream, with Obama’s oblique reference to “Cold War weapons we don’t use.” As we said in our article over on the main site, Obama is right to describe the F-22 this way. Development on the fighter began in 1981, and it has not seen combat since its deployment in 2005.

We take no position on the merits of the F-22 program. But the fighter, which is pictured below, has become a lightning rod of controversy both inside and outside the Pentagon. For those of you who haven’t been following the discussion, we provide you with a bit of background.

Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force
Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force

When the F-22 program launched, it was reportedly the most expensive weapons program ever initiated. The Air Force initially hoped to replace its entire fleet of F-15s (an air-to-air fighter whose main job is to shoot down other aircraft) with a new generation of fighters. Utilizing some of the same stealth technology deployed on the B-2 stealth bomber and the F-117 attack (or air-to-ground) fighter, the F-22 would allow the U.S. to take on the newest generation of Soviet and Chinese MiGs.

Only, the next generation of MiGs never happened. Long before the F-22 reached production, the Soviet Union collapsed and China began to focus less on military expansion and more on economic expansion. But the F-22 continued production. The Air Force currently has 187 of the advanced fighters. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, appointed by President Bush and retained by President Obama, has been openly critical of the program, calling it unnecessary for our current wars and suggesting that 187 of the planes might be enough. But the Air Force wants to build 194 more F-22s, and Lockheed Martin — the primary contractor for the F-22 — has been lobbying hard for the Air Force strategy. Gates favors building the much cheaper F-35. So far, the program has cost nearly $64 billion — or about $350 million per F-22. Much of that, however, is the cost of development. Building additional units runs around $140 million per plane, according to Defense Daily. A new F-35, by comparison, costs about $77 million.

Advocates of the F-22 point out that the U.S. F-15 fleet is more than 25 years old and argue that, while the F-15 was far and away the most advanced fighter aircraft of its day, other nations are beginning to catch up. Critics reply that the F-22 was designed to fight what Gates calls “a near peer” (i.e., a highly developed air force) and note that the U.S. doesn’t appear to be in significant danger of facing such a foe any time soon. Moreover, critics say, the F-15 is hardly a slouch. To date, it has compiled a combat record of 104 – 0. In other words, no F-15 has ever been shot down.

We’ll leave it to you to decide whether the F-22 is needed and is worth the cost.