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Why Americans Aren’t Sold on the F-22 March 31, 2009

Posted by SV in China, Russia, U.S. Budget, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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The F-22 Raptor is the next generation fighter jet that has been designed to ensure American air superiority against any foe during the next several decades. Its advanced technology and tactical capabilities allow it to be part of a first-wave (counter)attack that could achieve penetration of enemy airspace and get a first look at the situation and strike multiple targets while maintaining low observability and high speeds. Yet the Air Force has only been able to acquire 181 of the 381-minimum it argues it needs to fulfill its objectives. Despite full-page ads in the national papers and relentless advertising, a significant groundswell of support is still lacking. Why, then, does the public not seem sold on the need for at least 200 more F-22s?

The answer is not principally the jet’s heavy price tag, a question of its capability, or any alleged mismanagement of the procurement program. The major objection is the one of utility. People simply want to know, “what do we need another fighter jet for?” This response should not come as a surprise. To the general public, exposed to the popular news media and statements by their elected officials, the main threat facing the United States is the one posed by terrorism. Defeating a heavily defended North Korea or Iran is scarcely discussed. The need to defend against the possibility of a resurgent Russia or rising China is not even mentioned. If the only threat on the horizon is terrorism, they reason, why do we need a next-generation fighter that cannot attack terrorists any better than the current jets we employ?

The Air Force, however, has thought about the possibilities of facing a rising peer competitor. They know that the record of American air dominance is something that must be maintained and not taken for granted. The US has not lost a single soldier to hostile military aircraft since the Korean War and has not had a pilot shot down since the Vietnam War. Such an achievement was due to vigorous R&D that produced top-of-the-line fighters that were able to achieve and hold air dominance after each of those respective conflicts. It is the judgment of the USAF that it could not reliably sustain global air dominance into the mid-21st century without the 381 F-22s. Without adequate numbers, those records may be broken and American servicemen will be paying the bill with their lives.

What, therefore, is the solution to this problem? Respected military commentators like Ralph Peters are telling Americans that the F-22 is a “supremely unnecessary air superiority fighter” because no power can match our control of the air at this time. Without a visible, clearly existential threat like the Soviet Union in existence, Americans tend to revert to their tradition of experiencing free security and expecting peace to be the norm in international relations. The threat inflation surrounding terrorism may cause many to realize the importance of a strong defense, but they are not putting their trust on something they believe is not useful in the War on Terror. The solution is, as Herman Kahn struggled to get across to the American public in the 1960s, to think about the unthinkable; in this case great power rivalry or war.

This is not to suggest by any means that supporters of the F-22 and other future combat systems should insist that war with China or Russia is inevitable and that is why this new and expensive fighter is needed. Rather, elected officials and defense experts should insist on a return to the strategy of deterrence. They must make the argument that not only will the Raptor ensure air superiority for 40 years, but that it is necessary to have that capability for dissuasion and deterrence. A strong case can be made that the F-22 will dissuade rising competitors like China from challenging the US in the realm of air combat. Its advanced avionics and high technology can also deter a resurgent (and uppity) Russia from seeking a fait accompli in any future aggression against Eastern Europe (assuming F-22s are deployed in Europe).

To conclude, the F-22 is in trouble because Americans simply do not understand its utility and believe it is an unnecessary Cold War relic. This impression can only be reversed by policy-makers and experts insisting that the US return to a strategy of deterrence and dissuasion in order to defend against future peer competitors. If the US does not develop this fighter, its record of sustaining air superiority in every conflict since Vietnam may be at risk, or at least heavily compromised. Investment in the F-22 is a form of insurance, and the public must understand that, though it may seem like a high premium for a low-risk possibility, it will have a huge pay-off in direct (conflict) and indirect (deterrence and dissuasion) results.

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