A few days ago I said that I greatly enjoyed my colleague Mark Bowden's article about fighter aces but disagreed with his implication that the F-22 was the way to go for the Air Force or the country.

I have heard from many readers since then -- a few supporting the F-22, most against it. I'll start here with one representative "pro" comment. After the jump, a number of the meatier anti-F-22 arguments.

To be clear about a potentially awkward intramural point: although I disagree with Mark's conclusion, I am, as I said the first time, grateful for his engrossing article itself and for the opportunity it's created to air a range of opinion about a very important upcoming choice. He also has been extremely (and typically) mensch-like about the debate that his piece has inspired. 

Pro comment -- rather, anti-anti -- from someone whose email address identifies him as an employee of a major defense contractor:

Excuse me, but you seem to be caught up in the propaganda of the F-15 mafia.  The F-15 mafia and others have successfully reduced the numbers of F-22 production to the point where economies of scale are no longer possible.*  Unfortunately, those who really know the issues and the data, are not going to engage in a debate, because the result is to trash our country and our capability.  Because of freedom of speech, you are allowed too participate in a debate that has not helped our country.  No complex aircraft is without problems, but maintainers have never had an aircraft which provided so much capability on day one...

The per unit cost isn't even the whole picture, the total life cycle cost is.  And cost is relative.  Do you have the numbers for all alternatives?  Anyway, you don't have the numbers, no one in the unclassifed media does. 

* A major "anti" argument, as originally laid out by Chuck Spinney in 1991, was of course that economies of scale would never have been possible for this airplane, because the cost estimates used for the initial "buy-in" were implausibly low.

More after the jump:

From reader Peter Briggs:

I'm a long-ago Army ROTC officer who served in Vietnam... so I'm not anti-military. On the other hand, I got to VN in 1965 so I have a healthy admiration for the impenetrable doggedness of the military mind, particularly when challenged by things beyond its ken.

I was struck by two points in the article that neither the article nor the editors seemed to care to expand upon. The first being the "discovery" by second tier countries of the ease and low expense with which they could equip and fly adequate, if not dominant, aircraft in seemingly overwhelming numbers. Nowhere did the article discuss how the F-22, with its next gen avionics but no greater preponderance of firepower, would deal with this threat. Fire your missiles as accurately as you want, when they're gone, you're naked. This recalled a similar, though not directly the same, situation re the A-10. This clunky, unattractive plane, not piloted by the Top Guns, was the hero of the short Desert Storm and you'd think might have taught a tactical lesson about appropriate platforms. As we see no real threat to the F-15's superiority, wouldn't we be as well or better off by continuing the incremental evolution of its capabilities, at far lower cost - thus providing far greater numbers of "reasonably" if not "overwhelmingly" superior aircraft.

The second point was the "mention and move on" allusion to Robert Gates apparent long opposition to the F-22. We certainly deserved discussion of that.

From a reader who wants not to be named:

Its a compelling read [but] reads as if the alternative is between the full F22 buy or 30 year old F15s. Not so.

There is a but a brief passing reference at the end to the F-35 -- a fifth generation stealth fighter that we're planning to buy in large quantities over the next decade. [Background here.]

 The F35, though with acquisition/performance problems of its own,  has 80 to 85 percent of the capability of the F22 at 1/2 to 1/3 the price.

[The story] also reveals the vast difference between the services' view of risk. The Air Force treats any increase in danger to the lives of its pilots as unacceptable (contrast from WWII where bomber crews had higher casualty rates then infantry).  A soldier or Marine accepts the chance of losing  life or limb every time he steps outside the wire.

From reader Pierre Frioud, who notes the article's report that in the "Cope India" exercises, in 2004, pilots from the Indian Air Force did surprisingly well against Americans in the F-15:

Wouldn't the best solution be to outsource the USAF to India?

From a reader I won't identify:

Good writing by yourself and Mr. Bowden. I am currently reading Thomas Barnett's latest, Great Powers American and the World After Bush. From his ideas I would question whether it likely that an airwar versus North Korea or any of the rising powers would take place.  It would be better to invest in the tools to fight fourth generation wars and conterinsurgency conflicts. When I read the military obits every Sunday the initials IED slap me in the face. Would we had put the resources of the F-22 into a better personnel carrier.

And another:

I also disagreed with his article but my dissent was based on training.

What makes the American soldier, sailor, airmen nearly unbeatable in this day and age is not technology. The M-16 is not appreciably a better rifle than the AK-47 or whatever other firearm we might face; our current aircraft and ships are not that much better than those we fight against. [What matters is] training. When I was a squid, we trained and trained and trained and we were good at what we did and so were the Marines we carted around. We worked well together. To put it simply, we were the NFL playing against college kids and every war since we got our act together has been a case of "Welcome to the big leagues, guys."

Also, maintenance is crucial. When my fellow squids and I boarded a Soviet cruiser visiting Norfolk in the 1990s, the first thing we all noticed was the layers and layers of paint, probably covering up rust and poor maintenance. Our ships looked like crap sometimes, but it they were properly painted and maintained and everything worked (most of the time) and we knew how to fix them when they broke.

Training and maintenance are boring. There are no big contracts. But you can have all the technology you want; give me a well-trained corps with weapons that work.

And one more:

I simply wanted to know why both you and Mr. Bowden were ignoring Naval aviation in your discussion of American air superiority, and the purpose of aircraft in warfare.

It seems to me that the US Navy, in its continued use of the F/A-18 E/F airframe--even replacing the old EA-6 with the Growler--is making a smart move compared to the Air Force's begging for more funds. Furthermore, it would appear that the Navy's concentration on ground attack rather than dogfights is a more realistic approach to the role of aircraft in modern warfare. Furthermore, the Navy's deployability gives its aircraft range and combat radius far outstripping anything the Air Force can field without considerable in-theater infrastructure development.

Some in Congress have been calling for the Air Force to reevaluate its air superiority mission and instead concentrate on things like Strategic Air Command and cargo flights. The insistence on "fighter jets" would appear a romantic notion at best, a misallocation of tax dollars at worst.

I won't plan to publish any more of such comments; these do the job. The ultimate goal of our magazine has always been to promote serious thought and debate about issues that matter (plus to be entertaining, elegant, funny, surprising, and so on). In the Age Of The Internet, the thought and debate are carried out at a different pace and through different media than in ye olden days when Emerson and Thoreau would exchange hand-written missives. But this article and the response to it are in keeping with that long-term goal.