By Mackenzie Eaglen
If President Obama is intent on listening to military commanders, as he promised during the campaign, why is he now ignoring the military’s own requirement for additional F-22s? Why would the President want to compromise America’s half-century dominance in the air that has led to one powerful result: There has not been a single soldier or Marine who lost his life in combat due to a threat from the air in over 56 years.
As legacy aircraft retire at ever-increasing rates, however, maintaining that superiority is not guaranteed. Sufficient numbers of F-22s must be purchased as the Joint Strike Fighter slowly ramps up production in order to keep this tremendous capability and technological edge for the next four decades.
The tremendous strain on America’s Air Force and Navy fighter forces due to a lack of quantity is undeniable. The fighter gap is essentially here now. The lack of available aircraft to provide air superiority, deter potential aggressors, defeat enemy air defenses, protect ground forces from threats, and provide critical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance is not some problem for a future generation to fix. Even the safety of the skies above U.S. cities are at risk within the next few years due to a fighter shortfall in the Air National Guard negatively affecting its ability to complete America’s air sovereignty alert mission instituted after 9/11.
President Obama’s fiscal year 2010 defense budget only exacerbates the fighter strain, along with damage to the highly-skilled engineers and designers who build these world-class aircraft around the country. Indeed, before the budget is even approved by Congress, production work for third- and fourth-tier F-22 suppliers is already drying up. This affects America’s small businesses first.
The Air Force originally planned to purchase 700 F-22As to replace the fleet of 800 F-15A-Ds and the retired F-117 Nighthawk bomber, but the required number of F-22s was reduced over the past two decades due to budget constraints. More than 30 air campaign studies over the past 15 years have confirmed a minimum requirement for 260 F-22s. Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz recently acknowledged the Air Force warfighting requirement is for 243 F-22s, but the service can only afford 187 because of a lack of funds.
With only 187 F-22s, the number of actual combat-coded fighters available at any given time is roughly 125, with the remaining fighters used for training, testing, backup, and reserve missions.
Although the F-22A is the world’s sole fifth-generation fighter, numerous studies have concluded that the quality of the platform can be stretched only so far in making up for a lack of quantity. A shortfall of aircraft would also prevent the Air Force from filling out the service’s ten Air Expeditionary Forces, undermining their stability by ensuring the need to rotate F-22s on an as-needed basis.
Mackenzie Eaglen is the Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and Homeland Security at The Heritage Foundation at their Douglas and Sarah Allison Centre for Foreign Policy Studies.
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