Let a thousand flowers bloom, Atlantic-style (F-22 dept)

My Atlantic colleague Mark Bowden has produced another of his riveting narratives in the new issue of the magazine. His article is about the former US Air Force fighter pilot who is among the last to have encountered -- and beaten -- enemy airplanes in action. As Bowden points out, American pilots rarely have a chance to demonstrate their prowess any more, because no one is crazy enough to challenge them.

As a narrative and portrait of fascinating characters, this story is great. But for the record, I disagree with its implication that if the US doesn't build more F-22 fighter planes, it will pay the price in pilots' blood. Mark's case for the plane is more sophisticated than what the Air Force has typically claimed. His story doesn't say that if we don't build the F-22 we can't defend the nation. He says it's a choice between paying the price for defense in money -- or in pilots' lives.

Perhaps. I'm glad Mark wrote the story, because what to do about the F-22 is one of the next big defense decisions the Obama Administration must make. But as you consider his argument, you might also consider some of the material below, which offers other ways to think about the trade-offs this airplane represents.

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Extra reading possibilities:

- In "Uncle Sam Buys an Airplane," in the Atlantic in 2002, I described the genesis of the "Joint Strike Fighter," now known as the F-35. Its whole rationale was the fear that the F-22 would become so expensive that the U.S. would never be able to buy and field more than a tiny force. The F-35 has had problems of its own since then, and the contract officer at the center of my story has since been jailed for corruption on an unrelated matter, but the economic questions remain. (Excerpt after the jump.)

- In "F-22, Fact vs Fiction," published in 2000, the fighter pilot and aircraft designer Everest Riccioni assessed the F-22's abilities relative to the F-15's and other planes and argued that in the real circumstances of air combat, it would offer few advantages to pilots that would justify its costs -- and that the excessive cost of the airplane jeopardized pilots, since it meant too small a fighting force. The link above opens his paper as a Word document.

- In "Three Reasons Why the ATF Should Not be Approved for Engineering and Manufacturing Development," an internal Pentagon paper written in 1991, the defense analyst Chuck Spinney warned that the F-22 (then called the ATF) would inevitably become too expensive to buy in adequate numbers and would therefore leave the Air Force in a weakened situation. Most of the problems he foresaw have in fact materialized.

- in "Preying on the Taxpayer," published in 2006, the Project on Government Oversight analyzed budgetary and performance questions about the F-22.

- In the new book "America's Defense Meltdown" (described here, no longer available for free download but in bookstores shortly -- and ready now for Kindle) Pierre M. Sprey and Robert Dilger argue that the US could best guarantee air superiority by canceling further F-22 purchases and instead choosing a radically less expensive alternative, which they describe in detail. Excerpts after the jump.

- And just as a bonus, if you've ever wondered what it is like to sit in an F-15 during an hour-long aerial combat drill, well, wonder no longer.

Please do read Mark Bowden's article, which you'll enjoy. Read these others too. Discuss and decide. That's why we're here!

UPDATE: Please see followup posts here and here.

From "Uncle Sam Buys an Airplane," 2002:

In the 1980s [the Air Force] had begun work on the F-22, the ultimate go-anywhere, fight-anything Cold War weapon. To ensure that the plane could penetrate Soviet air defenses and beat any MiG then on the drawing boards, it was designed with barely an eye to cost. When the Soviet Union and the threat of its air force went away, the F-22 remained--but it entered what Chuck Spinney, an influential budget analyst at the Pentagon, has called the "Defense Death Spiral." In the death spiral Congress and the Pentagon buy into a program because the promised performance is so high that the projected costs seem acceptable. Then problems emerge, the schedule slips, and the promised costs start to seem "unrealistic." (The corollary in civilian life is what happens after you contract to renovate your kitchen.) Congress notices the cost and starts worrying. It slows down the production rate and reduces the total order, so the per-unit price really soars. Then Congress or an administration gets serious about cutting the program.

This is what happened to the B-2 bomber. The Air Force originally planned to buy more than 100 and ended up with twenty-one, at a cost of more than $1 billion apiece. As for the F-22, the first Bush Administration signed up for 750, at $50 million apiece. By the end of the Administration the "buy" had been cut to 648. During the Clinton Administration the buy was reduced, in stages, to 339--on the reasonable grounds that the plane was getting too expensive and that the Soviet threat had faded. The current Bush Administration has lowered the acquisition target yet again, to around 300.

The Air Force leadership has remained loyal to the F-22, consistent with its general enthusiasm for the highest-end, most sophisticated fighter conceivable. "This airplane will make the skies safe for everybody else," was the way a retired four-star Air Force general recently put it to me. But replacing the small F-16s and A-10s with the new airplanes would mean, in the words of Jacques Gansler, who directed defense acquisition policy during Bill Clinton's second term, "cutting the force structure in half." So in 1991 the Air Force was shopping for a cheaper airplane...

From "Reversing the Decay of American Air Power," in America's Defense Meltdown, 2009:

The business-as-usual policy dooms us to an Air Force of decreasing effectiveness,
uselessly small force size, and such inflexibility that it can only be employed for
strategic bombardment, against only mostly incompetent enemies. Here we propose
a very different approach to an Air Force that can flexibly serve the real, and highly
diverse, defense needs of the nation. This approach is based on the following common ground rules, each a complete departure from present U.S. Air Force planning

* Based on realistic, auditable cost estimates validated by objective and independent analyses, stay within the roughly $250 billion the Air Force is likely to be allowed to spend on aircraft procurement over the next 20 years or so.

* Ensure that the following missions can be performed effectively in real-world combat as a matter of the highest urgency:
1. close air support of American troops anywhere, whether in counterinsurgency missions or in sophisticated armored warfare;
2. battlefield airlift to American troops in remote areas, and
3. air-to-air superiority (dogfighting) against any air force, modern or aging, large or small;
4. battlefield interdiction, particularly in adverse terrain and against primitive, highly camouflaged supply lines.
* Develop and procure only aircraft and weapons of the utmost austerity, stripped down to only the capabilities directly required by actual combat experience. "Nice-to-have" features and capabilities for hypothesized future combat lead directly to shrinking force size and degraded effectiveness in real combat.

Based on these principles the authors go on to propose a kind of fighter that the Air Force could support in numbers of 1,100 or more, rather than 200 or 300. The whole book is worth serious consideration.