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President Barack Obama must soon decide whether to order the building of more F-22 Raptors or let the production lines close. Only 203 of the aircraft described by the think tank Air Power Australia as “the most capable multirole combat aircraft in production today” have been built or ordered.
Support for the aircraft is not limited to defense hawks. Last month, 44 U.S. senators, including Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, sent the president a letter requesting an additional order of unspecified size to prevent the planned 2011 shutdown. Bowing to political reality rather than true military needs, the Air Force now claims it could possibly get by with just 60 more aircraft.
Despite this, the Raptor may well have its wings clipped. The main reason: Strategists plan to fight the next war based on the last (or current) one. Where once we planned for massive set-piece battles, now it seems many can’t see beyond guerrilla warfare with lightly armed insurgents.
The F-22, which entered service three years ago, blends key technologies that formerly existed only separately on other aircraft - or not at all. Its stealthiness will make trigger-happy combatants shoot at birds. It has agility, air-to-air combat abilities and penetrability far beyond that of the F-15 Eagle which entered service 33 years ago. It cruises at Mach-plus speeds without using fuel-guzzling afterburners.
But the end of the Cold War, the current guerrilla wars, and what Air Power Australia calls a deliberate campaign of “concocting untruthful stories about its capabilities, utility and cost,” has devastated Raptor purchases. Originally the Air Force requested up to 762, but that was progressively cut to 648, 442, 339, then 277 before the current 203, of which 134 have been built.
A major criticism of the Raptor is the cost - about $339 million per aircraft. But much of this reflects a wisely added ground attack role and a sneaky but common ruse used to cut weapon procurements. Technology development costs are fixed. So each time an order is reduced, per-unit prices go up. Critics slashed the F-22 order, and then cited the “stunning” per-unit cost to slash away again.