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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Is the F-22 really dead?

click to enlarge F-22 RAPTOR: Voted "Best Advanced Fighter Jet Partially Manufactured in Cobb County" by CL readers in 2008.
  • F-22 RAPTOR: Voted "Best Advanced Fighter Jet Partially Manufactured in Cobb County" by CL readers in 2008.

Is the made-in-Marietta, $361 million-a-pop F-22 Raptor fighter jet really dead?

Headline writers seem to think so.

From the AJC: Pentagon plans to ax F-22 project

From the Christian Science Monitor: Pentagon budget kills F-22

From The Examiner: Marietta made F-22 Raptor killed by DoD

These obituaries were prompted by yesterday's announcement from the Pentagon that it plans to buy just four additional jets between now and 2011 before shutting down production. So far, 140 F-22s have been built.

I have a strong feeling obits for the F-22 are premature.

Fat weapons projects — particularly ones that employ thousands of people in dozens of congressional districts — have an uncanny ability to not die.

The F-22's history illustrates this phenomenon perfectly.

The F-22 is a Cold War leftover. It was conceived in 1981 to thwart anticipated advances in Soviet military aviation technology.

The advances never arrived and the Soviet Union itself kicked the bucket in 1991.

Because the F-22 was designed to thwart the Red Menace, the F-22 should have died with Communism, right?

Well, it wasn't that simple.

Reds or no Reds, the Air Force was completely and totally in love with the F-22. With the permission of Democrats and Republicans in Washington, the Pentagon continued to pump billions into the F-22's research and development throughout the 90s.

The military-industrial F-22 bromance went undisturbed until July 1999, when the Baltimore Sun published an investigative series about the F-22 showing how the Pentagon deceptively overstated the jet's performance and mission-necessity, while knowingly understating its true cost.

In a moment of rare clarity, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to cross the unnecessary fighter jet off the government's shopping list.

The F-22 was finally dead, right?

Wrong.

Congress eventually "compromised" by putting the F-22 program on life support instead of completely killing it. This gave military contractors and the Pentagon to mount a massive P.R. and lobbying effort to have the jet fully resurrected.

The resurrection arrived in 2002, when the Bush Pentagon asked Congress to pay for more than 200 F-22s. Congress complied and the first F-22 rolled off the assembly line in 2003.

The jets entered active military service in 2005 and, just as its harshest critics predicted, they've been completely and utterly useless.

The nation has been at war since 2001, yet the F-22 hasn't clocked a single minute of combat time, unless you count its appearance in the 2007 movie Transformers as combat. Radar-evading, supersonic combat jets simply aren't well-suited to fighting our current enemy: turbaned hillbillies with AK-47s and Toyota pickup trucks.

click to enlarge The biggest threat to American military air superiority?
  • The biggest threat to American military air superiority?

So, 10 years after its last moment of clarity on the F-22, the feds are once again hinting at the F-22's demise. Are they serious this time?

Let's see.

The F-22 provides business to 1,000 companies in 40 states. According the AJC25,000 people are directly employed to build the jet.

Yes, the federal budget is tighter today than it was in 1999, but members of Congress are under even more pressure to bring home jobs now than they were in 1999 thanks to the recession/depression.

The jet's builder, Lockheed-Martin, is already working overtime to pressure Congress and the White House to keep the F-22 alive.  In December, Lockheed-Martin bought www.preserveraptorjobs.com. It's loaded with pro-F-22 talking points and features a point-and-click letter-generator with which you can quickly let the government know how much you adore the plane.

I have a feeling Lockheed won't have to work nearly as hard as it did after 1999 to keep the F-22 going.

The Pentagon's announcement that it will "only" buy four more of the pricey, useless jets makes it clear the White House and Pentagon isn't actually killing the jet. Four jets is merely the opening offer in what promises to be a long negotiation.  As Congress and the White House work up the Pentagon's next budget, don't be surprised if four jets becomes six jets, 10 jets, or even 30 jets.

Military spending projects never die. They merely evolve.

Remember: the Pentagon still has military bases strategically located to protect wagon trains from Indians.

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