The worthlessness of the world’s most expensive fighter plane

By Jeff Huber

The Obama-era Senate showed its first glimmer of sentience on July 21 when it voted against increasing production of the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. Don’t think for a moment that the dogfight is over, though. Airpower fanatics and warmongers alike will continue to howl that we need more of these Cold War dinosaurs that, as defense analyst Winslow Wheeler has illustrated, cost nearly $400 million a pop.

Leading the battle cry for the F-22 lobby will be retired Air Force lieutenant general Thomas McInerney. A former fighter pilot who is now a defense industry executive and Fox News Pentagon shill, McInerney is a prominent resident of the pro-war asylum. In a recent article for Fox titled “We Cannot Afford to Lose the F-22,” McInerney makes all the leading tank-think arguments for buying more of the stealth fighter, and they’re a crock of wild blue bull feathers.

He tells us that the F-22 Raptor “will ensure U.S. air dominance if produced in sufficient numbers.” Neither the F-22 nor any other fighter will ever ensure U.S. air dominance no matter how many of them we make. Since the advent of fixed-wing airpower in World War I, fighter aircraft have accounted for a tiny fraction of all air attrition. Credit for the vast majority of shootdowns in the air age belongs to ground-based anti-air missiles and artillery.

Air-to-air fighters supposedly serve two missions: protecting good-guy bombers from bad-guy fighters and protecting good guys on the ground from bad-guy bombers. The former task is called offensive counter air (OCA). Decades of air combat exercises on instrumented ranges have proven that OCA fighters possess a wicked penchant for shooting down the bombers they’re supposed to protect. The most effective means of suppressing of enemy air defenses (SEAD) in our post-Cold War conflicts have involved neutralizing them with electronic jamming and destroying them with bombs and missiles.

Defensive counter air (DCA) fighters present similar self-defeating weaknesses. They have a hapless habit of getting themselves shot down by friendly ground batteries. Even worse is when the DCA fighters foul the range so the good guys on the ground can’t shoot and the bad-guy bombers get through untouched. The surest way to defend against an air raid is to keep your fighters on the ground and let your ground batteries shoot anything that flies.

McInerney says that the far less expensive F-35 Lightning needs the “F-22 to provide top cover” against modern surface-to-air missile systems and fighters. The F-22 offers no cover of any kind against surface-launched missiles, and there is no longer such a thing as “top cover” in jet warfare. The database shows that the bulk of the good guys who die are the ones who fly in low. Everybody operates in the high regime now.

You’d think that a senior fighter pilot like McInerny would know those things. Maybe he does, and he’s just blowing jet exhaust up our skirts; but I have known many senior fighter pilots in my life, and few of them understand the basic tenets of integrated air operations or even want to.

“The best fighter aircraft in the world,” as McInerny calls the F-22, earned its reputation in air-to-air exercises. The key to its success was not its stealthy airframe, however. Its impressive kill ratio came as a result of its sensor, communication, and weapon avionics. Those same avionics can be screwed into the still-in-production F-16, which at under $20 million per copy is still the most maneuverable fighter airplane ever made as well as a genuine dual-role combat jet that turns into a full-time bomber once an enemy’s air defenses have been destroyed.

Advance generation components and design were supposed to make the F-22 a low maintenance jet. It has, instead, posted a miserably low mission capability rate, largely because of the effort involved in maintaining its stealth features. It’s not only history’s most expensive fighter, it’s history’s most expensive fighter to maintain. It provides little enough combat effectiveness in the air. It’s even more worthless when it’s grounded for repairs.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates campaigned to have the F-22 acquisition frozen at its current level of 187 airframes. In doing so, McInerny asserts, Gates “has completely negated the views of the Commander of Air Combat Command” — General John Corley, another career fighter pilot.

That statement contains two significant ironies. First is McInerny’s attempt to bolster his argument with “expert” testimonial from a fellow lunatic. Second is his implication that Gates is somehow compelled, perhaps by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, to give his lunatic generals whatever they ask for.

Saying “no” to Corley and the rest of the Air Force is, in fact, the only thing Gates has done right. The Air Force lost its relevance long ago. Today, its primary contribution to national security involves flying the Army wherever it needs to go and air-to-air refueling of Navy jets operating from aircraft carriers. The junior service has proven it can’t be trusted to handle nuclear weapons properly, and its acquisition program dope deals make the other services’ acquisition program dope deals look saintly by comparison. The Air Force is lucky Gates hasn’t folded it back into the Department of the Army.

Now if we could only get Gates to start saying no to that lunatic Army general David Petraeus. The ultimate catch in the halt to F-22 acquisition is that Gates is saving money on a useless, self-defeating weapon program only to squander it on our useless, self-defeating wars in Asia. Even Petraeus idolater Thomas E. Ricks admits that the general never intended the surge in Iraq to be a victory strategy; he merely wanted to deceive the public and Congress into letting him extend the war indefinitely. Gates went along with the hoax, just as he supported the escalation in the Bananastans, even though neither the commander in Iraq nor the Joint Chiefs of Staff had formulated a strategy for the conflict or could say what they wanted to do with the extra troops or what they saw as an endgame.

Early proponents of airpower claimed it would make land and sea power, and eventually armed conflict itself, obsolete. Nearly a century into the air age, our defense secretary is finally realizing that the airpower promise is false. Yet he continues to support our impotent counterinsurgency strategies that promise only to make armed conflict indefinite, that can never produce anything remotely resembling “victory,” and that have no tangible connection to national security. Gates has refused to throw good money after bad on the F-22 program, but he refuses to recognize that the efforts already expended in our Asian wars are sunk costs, and he continues to buy the canard that says we have to honor our war dead by adding to their number.

In that regard, Robert Gates has abused his power and betrayed our trust every bit as damnably as have the likes of McInerny, Petraeus, and George W. Bush. And young Mr. Obama seems perfectly willing to let Gates go on doing it.

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword. In his 21-year career as a naval flight officer Jeff planned and participated in more than 40 major exercise and combat air operations. Jeff’s novel Bathtub Admirals(Kunati Books), a lampoon on America’s rise to global dominance, is on sale now.