Last night, Rachel Maddow spent a good deal of her show crowing over the death of a “military boondoggle” – though really, when has a leftist like her ever labeled military spending as anything but a wasteful “boondoggle.” The program she refers to is the F-22 Raptor, what was supposed to be the backbone of America’s Air Force into the 21st century, but is now more of an afterthought. Maddow was, of course, delighted to see the death of the program, and trotted out a seemingly interminable series of dubious claims against the aircraft. But what she fails to understand is how this leaves a potentially serious gap in America’s defense plans.
President Obama, after many long months of pressure and threatening to veto the entire military’s budget if the program did not go away, finally got his wish and saw the program terminated after only 187 of the planes were built, out of what was originally supposed to be over 800 (though the number had been whittled down to around 400 before the program’s termination).
The opponents of the program pointed to the F-35 Lightning II, another newer American fighter aircraft (though this one was jointly-built with many other countries, perhaps making it slightly more palatable to leftists), and questioned why America needed two new fighters for her Air Force. After all, the F-35 is cheaper and has many more variants, such as a carrier-capable plane and a STOVL (Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing) aircraft. The F-35 is cheaper on a per-aircraft basis (although the way military costs are assessed are based on the entire development life-cycle, and many of the F-35’s systems are borrowed from the F-22 development, so in reality the F-22 program paid for part of both aircraft.) Why, in that case, would anyone chose the F-22 over the F-35?
The answer is shockingly simple: these planes do not do the same thing. The F-22 is primarily an air superiority fighter, meaning it is designed to intercept and destroy enemy aircraft. The F-35 is mostly a ground-attack and close-air support aircraft. The F-22 exist precisely so the F-35 and similar aircraft- the B-1B, the B-2, etc — can do their jobs without fear of being shot down by enemy aircraft. In addition, the F-22 is a twin-engine aircraft, while the F-35 boasts only a single massive engine. Why is this important? Because in combat, engine damage is often the worst thing a pilot can suffer short of being shot down. Most recent jet fighters have been twin-engine aircraft precisely so they will have the additional reliability. If one engine is damaged, the plan can still make it home. In a single-engine aircraft, engine damage gives the pilot two options–bail out, and pray. There is a reason the F-22 is designed for air-to-air combat and the F-35 is not, and that reason is survivability.
Maddow insists that an aircraft like the F-22 is “designed to let us dogfight with the USSR” and is now outdated. She laughed off that there was any threat that the F-22 might ever be needed to fight. And indeed, the military leaders who ultimately chose to concede to the President’s wishes and put the kibosh on the F-22 program justified it by pointing to “delays” in next-generation Russian and Chinese fighter aircraft. The F-22 was certainly the first “fifth generation” fighter into the air.
We then concur that canceling the F-22 was the smart thing to do — if you want to fight the last war, and advance technologically only in response to unfriendly nations gaining an advantage. America’s air supremacy—and indeed, her unchallenged position as a military superpower exists precisely because America has stayed ahead of the competition. Competition that, unlike America with the F-22, has shown no compunction against selling advanced military technologies to unfriendly and rogue regimes. The invasion of Iraq went so swiftly because America’s soldiers did not need to fear attacks from the sky. Now imagine the next war, when America is equipped with only an aging fighter fleet, against an enemy possibly equipped with next-generation Russian and Chinese planes–such as the new Sukhoi fighter or which plan emerges from the Chinese J-XX program – -of superior technology and performance. Not a pretty picture.
So while Maddow may cheer America weakening her defenses yet again, we have to ask which is worse: to have a weapon you don’t need to fire, or to not have a weapon that you do?