U.S. military primacy built nearly a generation ago has guaranteed freedom of the seas and threat-free skies for U.S. ground forces in current operations. These tremendous capabilities are being taken for granted as investment in maintaining superior and technologically-advanced equipment in sufficient quantities is of diminishing importance for Pentagon leaders and civilian policymakers.
The Air Force and Navy both face serious projected gaps in strike fighter inventory. A fighter gap is essentially a deficit between the services' fighter aircraft inventories and their operational requirements based on emerging and possible air threats to U.S. security.
Contrary to popular perception, the F-35 is not a replacement for the F-22A. Buying more F-35s does not alleviate the need for additional F-22s. These platforms were designed to operate in tandem and perform complementary missions: The F-35 needs sufficient numbers of F-22s to clear the skies before it may operate unencumbered. The F-22 has the added advantage of flying at supersonic speeds without using an afterburner, conserving fuel and reducing its heat signature--a capability the F-35 lacks. The F-22 also clears the skies and ensures sophisticated enemy air defenses do not take down unmanned aerial vehicles, as well. In a conflict against an enemy with a capable air force, UCAVs might become easy prey to enemy fighters with active electronically scanned array radar.
Congress needs to consider the future capabilities of states that may potentially challenge U.S. fighter aircraft in the coming decades as fifth-generation fighters become the mainstay of the future force and legacy aircraft retire. These capabilities include foreign advanced attack aircraft, jammers, infrared search and tracking sensors, ultra long-range missiles, surface-to-air missiles, radar detection, anti-stealth technologies, and electronic warfare.
Large production runs of air superiority fourth-plus-generation fighters equipped with fifth-generation technology, such as the Su-35BM in Russia and China, could put the U.S. Air Force with its fewer numbers of F-22s and an aging F-15C fleet at a serious disadvantage. History and the ongoing technological arms race suggest that it would be dangerous for the U.S. to assume that the F-22 will have no equal and thus have a decisive advantage over any other fighter aircraft for the next 20 years.
The F-22 debate reaches beyond fighters to federal spending priorities, fundamental shifts in defense policies and priorities, and the future of the U.S. military. While Congress is moving to end the program of record, the reality is that the planned buy was cut short due to arbitrary budget constraints. The military requirement for 243 F-22s remains unchanged and unfulfilled even as Air Force leaders have repeatedly testified they need this many air superiority F-22s based on the current national military strategy.
The bottom line is clear: The military is unable to sustain today's capabilities with current funding levels. The F-22 debate should be about an inadequate Air Force budget since that is what drove the decision to end the program at 187 fighters.
The limited F-22 purchase would essentially only allow the Air Force to fly unchallenged in one theater of operations, not two. Because it takes about 100 airplanes to field a wing of 72 operational aircraft, 187 F-22As really yield only about 125 combat-coded planes. With a normal attrition rate of one plane per year, that leaves roughly 100 operational planes in the long-term.
General Schwartz, Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force, has said the traditional margins of U.S. military technology are diminishing. Investment in future technology advances and sufficient quantities of platforms is required to remedy this shift--and the F-22 represents this larger debate.
Mackenzie Eaglen is Research Fellow for National Security Studies in theDouglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.