Lockheed and the USAF have been preparing this super-fighter for over 25 years, and that long time span shows in the plane’s amazing strengths and weaknesses. My all-time favorite issue of Aviation Week appeared in the early eighties with a cover photograph of Grumman’s X-29 still in assembly. Along with the article about that FSW aircraft, the issue had three other features of note: a long profile of the B-1B’s development program after Reagan brought it back to life; early grainy pictures of the Su-25 Frogfoot, the Su-27 Flanker, and the MiG-29 Fulcrum (then known as the RAM-J, RAM-L, and RAM-K after their identification at the Ramenskoye flight test facility); and a long profile on the Air Force’s early design efforts with industry as part of the Advanced Technology Fighter program.
It’s hard for me to imagine all that time has passed, and it’s even more amazing that it can take that long to design, prototype, build, and field a weapons system, but such is procurement in our era. No wonder it costs the dozens of billions it does to create these things.
Now that this plane is in production, winning trophies, and dazzling observers, the question quickly arises – is this plane to be ours alone? Japan, Australia, and Israel have all expressed interest in the design. Obviously, Lockheed is eager to sell to as many customers as it can. This project began envisioning about 750 aircraft (1985), and that number has been chopped down over time (surprise), first to 648 (1990), then 442 (1994), 339 (1997), 277 (2003), and now 183 (2006). One can only imagine what the per-aircraft cost has done over this period as more than $20 billion in development funding are now spread among one-quarter the units as originally planned. Foreign sales offer the possibility of extending the production run, reducing per-unit costs, improving interoperability with Allies and enhancing the capabilities we would call upon in possible future conflicts, and of building good will with Allies by trusting them with this peerless asset. Foreign sales also open the platform to various vulnerabilites, as foreign air arms’ may not safeguard the Raptor’s technologies, systems, and tactics as well as we may wish.
Complicating these decisions is the fight between the F-22 and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. [As an aside, how on earth did this flyoff ever result in two X-planes, and how did the X-35 ever become the F-35? The designation people in the Pentagon should be ashamed of themselves.] The F-35 has been an international effort from the start, with the partners (USA, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, and the UK) determined to build a plane with performance and a price tag more accessible than the Raptor’s. As the F-35 endures the schedule and cost creep that afflict all development programs, the USAF is clearly eager to fill any gap with additional F-22 purchases, as they wish to exceed the 183 figure as much as they can. Since the F-35 and F-22 are both Lockheed products, Lockheed cannot be too upset by this development. They know that the USAF, USN, and USMC are all eager to buy the F-35 once its ready. Where Lockheed’s fear emerges is when it looks over its shoulder and sees Boeing offering F-15C, F-15E, and F/A-18E upgrades. South Korea’s recent F-15 purchases demonstrate how competitive this old design is with modern upgrades, and of course Boeing’s products are so deep into production that the risks are modest, the costs well known, and they are far out on the learning curve. The F-18G Growler is a demonstration of how adaptable Boeing plans to be with its products, and Australia has already moved forward on a Hornet purchase having decided the Raptor was too costly and difficult to acquire.
Where does the Raptor go from here? DID points to the recent Congressional Research Service report on Raptor exports. As expected, the CRS waffles, but they do have the nerve to call a spade a spade vis a vis the F-35 vs. F-22 issue.
The Japanese have a successful operational record with the F-4 and the F-15, which was the Raptor of its day. The F-35 is not ready, and as nations debate defense spending, there is real value to be said for “a bird in the hand.” If Japan is prepared to pay for the F-22, including the necessary steps to safeguard the plane for export, then surely that’s in their interests and ours. China’s capabilities are growing steadily, and the US does not wish to stand as the sole power prepared to contain Chinese ambitions. By working with Allies like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India, our ability to shape events will always be better with a more robust deterrent to ensure China does not take any shortcuts as its world role grows.
Update: More fighter politics news here.