The U.S. Senate appropriations committee recently approved its version of the fiscal year (FY) 2010 defense spending bill, and the legislation now awaits floor time in the full Senate. Section 8056 of the bill includes authorization for the U.S. Air Force to use appropriated funds to develop an export, or allied, variant of the F-22A Raptor. Members of the House of Representatives approved the opposite in the House-passed FY10 defense spending bill by reiterating support for the long-standing Obey amendment and denying the use of funds to develop an allied variant.
As John Donnelly reports in a CQ story on August 24, "Export Sales of F-22 Fighters Not Likely, Some Supporters Say," Representative David Obey (D-WI) "continues to oppose foreign sales, his spokesman said, and every Defense appropriations act since fiscal 2008 has contained a provision barring the use of any funds to export the warplane." Once this bill moves into conference negotiations between the two chambers of Congress, members should assume the Senate's wise position and fund an export version of the F-22.
The F-22 Has No Peer
The F-22 is the world's most advanced fifth-generation fighter aircraft. The F-22 offers several unique features: thrust-vectoring engines, which make it highly maneuverable; the latest in stealth technology; an avionics system that can fuse information into a single display; and the ability to cruise at supersonic speeds at 50,000 feet. What makes the Raptor spectacular--and why its capabilities cannot simply be replaced by additional F-35 Joint Strike Fighters--is the F-22A's unique ability to accelerate beyond the threat and reposition for attack.
Naturally, Congress is protective of these unrivaled technologies. Even though core allies like Japan and Australia have repeatedly expressed interest in purchasing a modified version of the F-22, Congress has yet to produce a final bill that waives legislation preventing the aircraft from being exported.
Benefits of Sale to Trusted Allies
The continued growth of China's defense budget and the technological advancements of its People's Liberation Army (PLA) have alarmed many of America's allies in the western Pacific, prompting them to invest in expanding their own military capabilities.
Since 1998, various allies have inquired about purchasing the F-22. Japan has been the most vocal, persistently lobbying the U.S. government for the opportunity to acquire the aircraft to replace its aging fleet of F-4 Phantoms. A major air combat capability review conducted by the Australian Department of Defence in 2008 also analyzed the benefits of purchasing the F-22. Although Australia's 2009 Defence White Paper proposed buying 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, many analysts believe Australia would be interested in taking advantage of the joint air dominance capabilities provided by the tandem operation of the F-22 and F-35 aircraft if the F-22 were available for export. South Korea and Israel have also shown interest in the Raptor.
With the F-22 line set to permanently close down in December 2011 if Congress does not purchase additional aircraft, the window for developing a variant of the F-22 that may be sold to allies in the Pacific, including possibly South Korea, is rapidly closing. A modified F-22 would provide these countries with the most advanced fighter on the market and help reinforce America's hedging strategy in the region by increasing interoperability with U.S. military forces. Foreign sales of the F-22 would also reduce the unit cost of the aircraft, potentially paving the way for the procurement of additional F-2As to help fulfill the Air Force's military requirement of 243 aircraft.
The original concerns that prompted Congress to prevent the export of the F-22--the need for America to retain its fighter aircraft technological edge--no longer outweigh the two pressing demands: increasing the air superiority capability of America's Asian allies and retaining a national option to keep the production line open should Congress authorize production of more F-22s in the future.
Hedging against the medium- and long-term implications of China's military modernization will remain a critical component of America's strategy in the Pacific. Selling the F-22 to core allies that share both America's values and interests, like Japan and Australia (and even South Korea), will only contribute to this effort.
Moreover, the U.S.'s relationship with both countries has only deepened in the past decade as concerns over North Korea's nuclear program and China's growing military have drawn their interests closer to those of the U.S. Finally, an allied variant F-22 by default would be designed to alleviate the original concern of giving away too much critical technology.
The Window Is Closing
Congress has an opportunity in the pending FY 2010 defense appropriations bill to advance a series of mutually reinforcing goals that will contribute to American national security. While the original ban may have been prudent during the post-Cold War period of the 1990s, America's stronger relationships with Japan and Australia--coupled with the growing sophistication of China's PLA--have raised the stakes in the Pacific. Ensuring a stable balance of power in the region to hedge against uncertainty and stave off miscalculation demands that America's allies have the opportunity to field the most advanced fifth-generation platform on the market.
Studying the feasibility and cost of an F-22 allied variant is critical as well for America's shrinking aerospace industrial base. An allied variant in full-rate production for multiple countries would keep most elements of the F-22A production line "hot" for the next decade. Keeping the production open will result in greater efficiency and a reduced per unit cost--thereby creating an opportunity for Congress to purchase the 40 additional Raptors needed to meet the Air Force's "medium" risk air superiority requirement.
Congress is faced with a decision that stands to impact the next 30 years of U.S. air power and strategy in the Pacific. The unique opportunity now exists to significantly enhance the military capacity of America's closest allies in the Pacific. Congress should seize this moment and reward allies like Japan, Australia, and possibly South Korea with the option to purchase the F-22.