New York Times
July 24, 1999

Are We Ready To Lose The Next Air War?

By F. Whitten Peters

With little debate and without a hearing, the full House voted this week to effectively kill the F-22 Raptor aircraft, the linchpin of the Air Force's modernization program. Fortunately, the final word is not in, and the F-22 still has strong support in the Congress and from Defense Secretary William Cohen and President Clinton.

Killing the F-22 is simply not acceptable. It is wrong for national security. It is bad economics. And it would put American service members at unnecessary and unacceptable risk.

Operation Allied Force in the skies over Kosovo illustrated that air superiority is the foundation for victory on land, at sea and in the air. As we rapidly deploy decisive combat forces from the United States to the scene of hostilities, fighter jets will be the first to arrive. They will help us deter an adversary from attacking and, if deterrence fails, to fight on the ground and in the air, and win. The F-22 will guarantee success in these vital missions for decades to come.

Some critics of the F-22 contend that our country's relatively easy victories over the past 10 years prove that we don't need a new fighter. They insist that our air power is already far superior to that of any potential enemy.

Today, though, at least six other aircraft -- the Russian Mig 29, SU-27 and SU-35, the French Mirage 2000 and Rafael and the European Consortium's Eurofighter -- threaten to surpass the aging F-15, our current top-of-the-line air-to-air fighter.

These aircraft are marketed aggressively around the world to our allies and potential adversaries. Without the F-22, the United States runs the risk of allowing our air superiority to atrophy to the point that an adversary could inflict great harm on our previously superior Air Force.

Already, many nations like Iran, Iraq and North Korea are constructing sophisticated air defenses built around surface-to-air missile systems, like the Russian SA-10, SA-12 and SA-20. All these missile systems are available on the market today. Our current aircraft, like the F-15 and F-16, lack the F-22's stealth and supercruise abilities and will be unable to evade or destroy these air defenses without risking heavy losses.

Other weapons that might be used against these air defenses are also extremely expensive. The Air Force's conventional air-launched cruise missile and the Navy's Tomahawk cruise missile cost $1.4 million each. Even with these weapons, we would still need an upgraded F-15, which could cost some $40 billion -- essentially the same as the cost of completing the F-22 program, but the F-15 would have only one-third of the ability.

Using a combination of cruise missiles and upgraded F-15's does not, therefore, reflect the best stewardship of taxpayer dollars. More importantly, our young men and women would be at greater risk in future wars.

Not only does the F-22 meet the military threats on the horizon, it is also affordable as a part of a well-conceived modernization strategy the Air Force has used over the past three decades. By consistently investing about 10 to 12 percent of our total budget on new aircraft, we have been able to upgrade all our aircraft over a period of years.

In the 1970's, we bought new fighters. In the 1980's, we added new bombers. During the 1990's, we fielded the C-17, our newest transport jet. Now, our attention returns to the fighter force. The Congressional Budget Office has applauded this cyclical strategy; we have maintained the the world's best air force while avoiding overlaps in aircraft purchases.

No question, the F-22 is expensive, but it is worth every penny. Each Raptor will cost on average about $84 million to produce. The $200-million price tag discussed recently is a figure that charges all past F-22 program costs -- including research and development, testing, procurement and military construction -- to the planned buy of 339 aircraft.

This is an unfair comparison because the $23 billion we've already spent on the F-22 would be lost if the program were canceled. The key question is, What will it cost from today forward?

At peak production, the Air Force will spend about 6 percent of our budget on the F-22. This is about the same percentage of our budget that went toward developing and buying the F-15 nearly 30 years ago. This equates to less than 2 percent of America's national security budget. Our cost containment on the F-22 is a success story; it is within Congressionally mandated caps for both development and production.

The threat is real, and the F-22 program is well within our budget. The air superiority provided by the Raptor will insure victory in future battles and preserve the lives of countless Americans soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. The F-22 is an investment America cannot pass up.

F. Whitten Peters is Acting Secretary of the Air Force.