F-22 Fight Not Over

The ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee says the battle to fund more than 187 F-22 stealth fighters is not over, even though pro-Raptor forces suffered a stinging defeat in the Senate this week.

Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon of California told HUMAN EVENTS the next F-22 war zone is a House-Senate committee conference on defense spending. There, as ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, McKeon will fight to preserve final bill language to provide for 12 more jets, as the House approved.

“We have a House bill that passed on the floor,” he said. “We have appropriators [in a second committee] that have followed the same thing. We will have a conference. That’s how we normally do things here.”

The Senate voted Tuesday 58-40 to strip language from its version of the defense authorization bill to spend $1.75 billion on seven more F-22s. The House bill is a bit less ambitious. It provides $369 million as an advancement payment in an attempt to lock the Pentagon in on at least 12 more.

Backed by President Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made ending the F-22 line at 187 planes one of his major objectives in the 2010 budget. He has issued a presidential veto threat. But McKeon said such warnings do not scare him.

“I’ve been here long enough to hear presidents say we might veto something and then they’re presented with a final bill,” the nine-term congressman said. “Some times they veto something; sometimes they don’t. I get up in the morning and if hear the president say we’re going to veto something does that mean I go swimming? I take the day off because I don’t have anything to do because the president is running everything? I don’t think so. We have a job. And we’re going to do our job. At the end of the day there will be more negotiations. We’ll go through the process.”

Gates has made repeated, impassioned pleas to terminate the Lockheed Martin Corp. production line. Just this week he dismissed F-22 backers with this statement: “What I have not heard is a substantive reason for adding more aircraft in terms of our strategic needs.”

Asked about Gates’ assertion that the congressman and other F-22 supporters have not made their case, McKeon pointed out that before Obama took office and started cutting defense, studies showed the Air Force needed 381 jets to meet future threats. Suddenly, the Air Force only needs 187, yet there has been no strategic study to show a change worldwide.

“I don’t have to make the case,” McKeon said. “The case was made. If the case hasn’t been changed, does he have something that says the threat is less and we don’t really need 381?”

On this point, McKeon is backed by the Air Force general whose mission it is to provide fighters to war commanders. At issue for them is the term “air superiority”  the ability to quickly capture the skies in a war to prevent air attacks on American forces. Many experts say 187 F-22s is simply insufficient to do the job and deter potential aggression from China and Russia.

Gen. John Corley, who heads Air Force Air Combat Command in Langley, Va., sent a June 9 letter to Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who is leading the Senate effort to build more jets. Lockheed produces the plane in the senator’s home state of Georgia.

“At Air Combat Command we have held the need for 381 F-22s to deliver a tailored package of air superiority to our combatant commanders and provide a potent, globally arrayed, asymmetric deterrent against potential adversaries,” Corley wrote in a letter that bucked Gates and his in-house four-star generals. “In my opinion, a fleet of 187 F-22s puts execution of our current national military strategy at high risk in the near to mid-term.”

Corley also debunked comments from Gates’ aides that studies support the termination. “To my knowledge, there are no studies that demonstrate 187 F-22s are adequate to support our national military strategy. Air Combat Command analysis, done in concert with headquarters Air Force, shows moderate risk can be obtained with an F-22 fleet of approximately 250 aircraft.”

Military sources said the Air Force pushed for that number in internal budget talks, but Gates rejected it.

In the HUMAN EVENTS interview, McKeon was also critical of a signed gag order Gates demanded from scores of officers and bureaucrats during formation of the 2010 budget. Republicans have criticized the unprecedented move as a chill on candid testimony before Congress. To this day, Pentagon officials fear reprisal if they step outside the company line.

Said the congressman, “If I’m in a position to determine what people can say and I’m pushing a certain position and I tell people who support my position, ‘say all you want.’ I tell people who support the previous position, ‘don’t say any thing.’ Where are we?”

McKeon said the bottom line is the F-22 decision is not based on the threat, but on money. The program has cost $65 billion to date. Obama is cutting defense over the next five years, while Gates needs more funds to spend on equipment for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I think most people would agree this is driven by budgetary constraints, not by our military strategy for what is needed,” McKeon said.

Gates has justified the cut by ramping up production of the next multi-purpose fighter, the F-35. But critics say the Pentagon is not increasing the overall buy of 2,449 planes. And, the slower, single-engine F-35 cannot possibly capture the sky the way the twin-engine, highly-maneuverable F-22 can.

What’s more, an important role for both planes is to knock out sophisticated surface-to-air-missile sites, systems being produced by Russia and China that could be sold to Iran. One day, F-22s might be called on as part of an air campaign to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The F-22 can attack a SAM site at higher altitude — above 50,000 feet — and at greater range than the F-35, increasing its chances at success and survival. While the F-22 flies at one and a half times the speed of sound, the F-35 does most of its work at sub-sonic speed. It takes the F-35 nearly four times longer to reach 1-1/2-times the speed of sound, or MACH 1.5.

“[The] F-22 only aircraft able to out-accelerate and outrun today’s threats,” says an Air Force briefing paper given to Congress. “Speed gives F-22 superior survivability and lethality …. Unmatched speed, altitude and maneuverability.”

Another unsigned Air Force briefing paper states, “F-22 force size driven by budget not strategy; negative real-world impacts.”

Amid the battle on Capitol Hill, news stories bashing the plane suddenly started to appear. The plane, the stories said, cost too much to maintain; could not sustain its radar-absorbing skin; has a faulty fuel system; and can only muster a 50 percent availability rate.

This month, the Air Force circulated a paper agreeing with some of the complaints, while attempting to shoot down others. For example, on reports it costs nearly $50,000 an hour to fly the plane, the Air Force said that is all types of combined government-contractor cost.

The more precise number covers repairs, parts and fuel, and totals $19,750 — compared with $17,465 for the F-15 Eagle, the plane the F-22 is replacing.

The Air Force said the availability rate has increased to 68 percent of F-22s, which went operational in 2005, but which have not seen combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“The F-22 is better for air-to-air to meet the defense needs we have,” McKeon said. “Again, the experts that came up with this said 381 is the minimum need for the threat. I don’t know we can assume that Russia is all of a sudden become no threat ever, for ever. China, no threat ever, for ever. I had a [Defense Intelligence Agency] briefing over the weekend that showed me we probably should not assume that.”