Wednesday Lockheed Martin delivered the last of 187 F-22 Raptor fighter jets to the U.S. Air Force at a ceremony at the company's plant in Marietta, Georgia. The roll out -- attended by Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) -- prompted Lockheed Martin executives to describe the plane as "the baddest bird on the planet" and "an icon of American power." The facts suggest otherwise.
On the same day that Lockheed and the Air Force were singing the praises of the F-22, ABC News ran a piece that pointed out that the aircraft is so dangerous that some pilots are refusing to fly it. At issue is a problem with the system that gets oxygen to the pilot during flight. As ABC noted in the piece -- produced by the network's investigative unit, headed by Brian Ross -- the flaw in the plane could cause "hypoxia-like symptoms" which can result in "a lack of oxygen to the brain... characterized by dizziness, confusion, poor judgment and... loss of consciousness." One controversial incident resulted in the death of Capt. Jeff Haney. The Air Force blamed his death on pilot error, while Haney's family is demanding an investigation to determine whether it was caused by the faulty oxygen-delivery system.
While the F-22 is a danger to its pilots, it has little use in the real world. Despite coming on line nearly seven years ago, the plane has never seen combat -- not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, and not in the recent NATO air campaign in Libya. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a long-time critic of the plane, has suggested that its main use may be at air shows, where it can do stunts at low altitudes -- low enough that the oxygen problem is not an issue.
At $412 million a pop -- the final price tag once a new round of upgrades is completed -- the F-22 is the most expensive fighter plane ever built. That's an unbelievably high price to pay for a show plane.
It could have been worse. It took a concerted campaign to kill the F-22. If Lockheed Martin and its allies in Congress had had their way, we'd still be buying F-22s, ending up with nearly twice the number the Air Force has now. It took a veto threat from President Obama, a series of devastating critiques by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a bipartisan effort in the Congress spearheaded by Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-MI) and Senator McCain, and a public education campaign by a network of peace, arms control and good government groups to end the program at its current level of 187 planes.
But the budget battle is far from over. The plane that Robert Gates touted as a next-generation replacement for the F-22 -- the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter -- has serious problems of its own. It is overweight, overpriced, underperforming, and unnecessary.
The F-35's current unit cost is "only" $133 million, more than twice the original estimate. And because the U.S. government wants to buy over 2,400 copies of the plane -- over twelve times as many as the number of F-22's it purchased -- the F-35 program will be the most expensive weapons program in the history of Pentagon procurement, costing at least $380 billion. And that doesn't count an estimated $1 trillion or more to operate the planes in the decades to come.
These immense costs are destined to buy a plane that has no clear use. It is second-rate at each of the major tasks it is meant to fulfill, from bombing, to aerial dogfights, to close air support for troops on the ground. And at a time when most current and potential U.S. adversaries barely have air forces worth the name, upgraded versions of current planes are more than up to the job. As for the alleged "Chinese threat," Beijing is more than a generation behind the U.S. in fighter plane technology, and the notion that the United States would ever find itself in a war with a nuclear-armed China involving battles in the sky between dueling fighter planes is preposterous.
At a time when deficit pressures are forcing a second look at programs throughout the federal budget, the F-35 is a logical place to cut. A series of independent groups, from the Sustainable Defense Task Force to the Domenici-Rivlin Task Force to the chairs of President Obama's own deficit commission have suggested canceling or scaling back the F-35 program as a way to reduce the Pentagon's bloated budget. Let's hope the F-35 doesn't become the next generation's F-22 -- a plane we don't need at a price we can't afford.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.
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