The Demise of the F-22 Raptor: The Story Behind the Story

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By now, most of the stories behind the dazzling rise and ignominious demise of a proud, magnificent bird, the F-22 Raptor, have been told.

Stories about the brilliant design and cutting edge manufacturing and assembly technology. A technology that has been described as “the only thing more complex than the human body.” (I was fortunate to visit the “mile-long” Lockheed Martin F-16 assembly line; the F-22 line must be even more spectacular.)

Stories about the awesome performance of the world’s most capable, most powerful and most sophisticated fifth-generation fighter aircraft—but a combat aircraft that has never seem combat.

Stories about the absolute air supremacy that a fleet of nearly 400 of these aircraft—along with approximately 2,400 “next generation” F-35s—would provide our nation, enabling us to fight two major wars simultaneously against any superpowers.

But also stories about technical setbacks, schedule slips, cost overruns; about budget battles and cuts, politics at the highest levels, intense lobbying, economics and economic hard times. About the severe economic impact cancellation of the F-22 would have on defense aerospace manufacturers in 46 states and on an already flailing economy. Job losses close to 100,000 at a cost of more than $12 billion in national economic activity were predicted as a result of the F-22 program cancellation.

Also, stories about how, during the Cold War, with all the threats and fears that marked that period, the massive F-22 program was launched calling for over 600 of these advanced aircraft, only to see the Soviet Union collapse a mere seven months after contracts were awarded for the F-22. The end of the Cold War, the demise of the Soviet Union, and the changing nature of warfare made such large number of F-22s “unnecessary” in the minds of many.

Finally, perhaps the most important story. The story of “the most radical secdef in generations, upending the politics of national security…and defying the military-industrial complex.” In other words the story of a man who laid out his vision of how future “complex, hybrid wars” will be fought and what will be required to win those wars; a man who is solidly in charge and has the guts to say “no” both to his generals and to his politicians.

It is said that there’s always a story behind the story. In the case of the saga of the F-22 Raptor, there are many. In my opinion, no one has told them better than Fred Kaplan.

In a recent article in Newsweek Kaplan gives us a pretty good preview of his story behind the story in his opening paragraph:

For more than 60 years the Air Force has trumpeted itself as the service of glamour, its pilots ruling the skies, soaring, diving, bombing, and strafing from far above—yet still commanding the clash of armies on the ground. In movies, they wore white scarves and set the girls’ hearts aflutter.

We learn about the fierce fight that is on “for the mission, culture, and identity of the Air Force,” where “the Top Guns are losing,”

Kaplan tells us about the “intense, almost messianic passion” by senior Air Force officers pushing the F-22.

He tells us how to defenders of the F-22, the Air Force means “fast, agile planes dogfighting high in the sky,” and how, to them, killing the F-22 was” tantamount to killing the Air Force.”

Kaplan goes back into the history and into the culture of U.S. Air Force leadership. We learn that from 1947 to 1982, all 10 generals who served as Air Force chief of staff were bomber pilots. Then, from 1982 until 2008, all nine generals who served in that position were fighter pilots. Finally, how in 2008, as a new era in warfare was beginning, Secretary Gates asked President Bush to appoint “a different kind of chief of staff: “Gen. Norton Schwartz. A man who came up through the ranks flying neither bombers nor fighters but C-130s, the bulky cargo planes that haul troops, weapons, and supplies from bases and supply depots to the battlefront.” According to Kaplan, the Air Force brass had never valued the unglamorous yet vital airlift mission as highly as the “missions that involve fast combat planes or bombing targets deep behind enemy lines—until now.”

Schwartz’ appointment came after Gates got his chance to “nudge the naysayers aside” in June 2008, when two Air Force scandals erupted—the mistaken shipment of electrical fuses for ballistic-missile warheads to Taiwan and the case of a strategic bomber flying over U.S. territory carrying live nukes. Gates used the opportunity to fire Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley and the Secretary of the Air Force, Michael Wynne.

Kaplan suggests, and probably rightly so, that the nature of past wars and conflicts have influenced the rise of certain kinds of military leaders and have stimulated the thought of such leadership.

According to Kaplan, during the most intense period of the Cold War, “much higher status was given to pilots of nuclear bombers.” Then, the Vietnam War “paved the way for the rise of the fighter pilot.” However, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are now demanding a new Air Force culture—part of this new culture are the UAV “pilots.”

The rest of Kaplan’s article delves into the importance and urgency Gates places on the development, production and use of UAVs (Predators, Reapers, Global Hawks, Sky Warrior Alphas, etc.) in present and future conflicts.

UAVs have already proved their value during the Yugoslavian conflict and during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. They continue to perform superbly in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Yet, there was and is resistance to the development and use of UAVs by Air Force Brass, “because they are not very sexy,” because of the attitude: “Airplanes without pilots in them? That’s not what we’re about!”

Kaplan recalls how a half century ago, “Gen. Curtis LeMay, the first head of the Strategic Air Command, opposed development of the intercontinental ballistic missile, which he feared would supplant the long-range bomber. He didn’t want the Air Force to become, he said, ‘the silent silo-sitters of the ’60s.’”

Finally, Kaplan looks at a “developing” story.

It is the story about how those who “fly” the UAVs will no longer have to be pilots, and about the prediction by C. R. Anderegg, the Air Force historian, that “just as the generals of the 1950s and ’60s were predominantly bomber pilots, and the generals of the 1970s and ’80s were mainly fighter pilots, so a lot of the generals in the coming decades may be UAV joystick pilots”:

It’s going to be pretty hard for a promotion board, picking the next one-star generals, to pick a colonel who hasn’t commanded a UAV wing over a colonel who has. The UAV commander has the experience, and he has a larger, less insular view of the battlefield than, say, an F-22 pilot at Langley.

By the way, the White House’s defense-budget request for fiscal 2010 includes approximately $3.5 billion for unmanned aerial vehicles.

The handwriting is on the Pentagon’s wall.

To read this fascinating story behind the story please click here.

Kaplan is the National-Security Columnist for Slate and the author of 1959: The Year Everything Changed.

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist