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Commentary

Overblown 'Raptor' Would Plunder Budget

August 14, 2001|EVEREST E. RICCIONI | Col. Everest E. Riccioni is a retired Air Force fighter pilot, test pilot and engineer. He is a member of the military advisory committee of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities

All indications are that the Pentagon is about to recommend moving the F-22, or Raptor jet fighter, into production. It's a recommendation that should not fly given the aircraft's costs, which are going off into the wild blue yonder.

Earlier this month, it came to light that the per-unit cost of building the 339 Raptors planned could increase from about $182 million per fighter to more than $209 million, based on the latest Pentagon calculations. That's more than three times the original F-22 price tag, which was calculated based on a production projection of 800 aircraft.

The cost increase means Congress will need to remove a $43.4-billion procurement spending cap placed on the Raptor in 1997 (to contain its cost) or reduce again the number of aircraft to be built, this time to as few as 248.

There is a third option. Before Congress lifts its current cap on F-22 spending or the Air Force is forced to accept delivery of fewer of the aircraft--engaging, in the process, in what only can be described as an act of unilateral disarmament--the Pentagon should reassess whether the Raptor should ever go into production.

When the Raptor was first conceived--on my watch as commander of the flight mechanics division of the Air Force's Flight Dynamic Laboratory--the plane was designed to outperform and replace both the F-15 and F-16 and fly stealthily at supersonic speeds deep into the Soviet Union to take out bombers headed toward the United States or its allies.

Today, there are still 2,400 F-15s and F-16s to replace and, aging though they may be, these aircraft are still without peer in terms of their air-to-air capabilities.

At the same time, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the original mission of the Raptor has virtually evaporated and much of its original promise has also been undercut.

For a variety of reasons, the Raptor's weight has grown 30% without a concomitant increase in fuel capacity or thrust. The weight increase alone has made the Raptor's performance commonplace, about that of the Air Force's 20-year-old F-15C, the F-16D and the obsolescing Russian MIG-29.

At the same time, hopes that the F-22 would be capable of identifying enemy aircraft and shooting them down beyond visual range remain unfulfilled. Its avionics also have been called into question, and an overhaul of the aircraft's entire system may be in order because the computer chips are not compatible with current state-of-the-art technology.

The Raptor's stealth capabilities have been largely misrepresented. There are five signatures to an aircraft--visual, radar, electromagnetic emissions, infrared and sound--and the F-22 is designed to excel in only one: radar evasion from enemy fighters (not from ground radars) and from limited directions. The F-22's other four signatures are very large, and the plane will not be able to hide from the enemy.

Because the F-22 is no longer more capable than the F-15 or F-16 and costs more than three times as much as these aircraft, it is difficult to imagine how production of any Raptors can be justified.

Finally and most important, before suggesting that we renew production of the F-15 and F-16 or move forward on the F-22, or any new fighter, it would be wise to reassess the threats facing our existing fleet of fighter jets, including those of our large and modernizing Navy, before committing to their wholesale replacement.

There are those in the Department of Defense who realize that our military forces no longer face a threat to their air superiority. However, while the world has changed, our philosophy has not.

If we blindly commit to the F-22, we will simultaneously spend exorbitant sums and engage in an act of unilateral disarmament. The money can be better spent on meaningful military programs that enhance our power.

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