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F-22 Raptor : Economics versus Technology

Panjaj Kumar Jha was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • July 13, 2009

    The US Department of Defence has been contemplating whether to lift the ban on F-22 exports, the fifth generation stealth aircraft. This would mean that many of the US allies namely Japan, Israel and others might become interested in procuring the aircraft. For Japan it would provide much needed air superiority to the Japanese Air Force concerned at North Korean long range missiles and nuclear capabilities (even though the US has stationed a dozen F-22s at Kadena air base in Japan since May 2009). Israel would like to get the aircraft to launch any pre-emptive strike on Iran.

    Earlier in June 2009 US Defence Secretary Robert Gates strongly advocated discontinuation of any further procurement of the F-22 stealth aircraft due to escalating production costs and lack of economies of scale caused by the ban on exports. The US Air Force (USAF) has been in the final stages of procuring the last four aircraft to complete the sanctioned quota of 187 of these air superiority fighters. The statement by Gates in June 2009 to stop any further procurement of the F-22 Raptors, has seen emotional outbursts from the general public as well as employees of Lockheed Martin, sub contractor Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Pratt and Whitney who would be adversely affected by such a decision. The Senate Committee on Defence has endorsed the procurement of a dozen more aircraft though US Air Force officials have lobbied for 200 more aircraft. One reason given for its further production and procurement is its technical superiority and stealth features. In discussion forums as well as in the Senate it has been stated that since Russia and China are continuously working on fifth generation fighter aircraft, the US should not undercut its air superiority. In addition, most of the hardware is being produced within the US only so it would not suffer production disruptions due to disagreement among partners as might be the case in the future production of F-35 which has a number of countries producing auxiliary hardware. On the one hand, in a number of blogs and web sites that have been dedicated to this versatile fighter it has been stated that it is the only fighter that is superior to most of the fighter aircraft produced around the world. On the other hand, U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have asked for more F-15E and F-16 aircraft to give them necessary tactical support. It has been envisaged that more funds should be allocated for ‘Drone’ (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle) development and production as they have been the most effective against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    The F-22 in that regard basically caters for long distance operations and has stealth features to support shorter precision strikes. Robert Gates has made his preferences clear by stating that he would allocate more funds for the F-35 fifth generation combat aircraft to replace the F-15, F-16 and F-18 which are due for a structured phase out after more than three decades of service with the US Air Force. One of the disadvantages cited is that F-22 raptor is a costly aircraft at about US$140- 150 million each. But with the addition of defence R&D costs included, each aircraft is worth $ 350 million. The state of the art aircraft has been sought by US allies like Japan and Israel in the past but due to export restrictions, the US was not able to meet their demands. Even when one of the F- 22 Raptors crashed near California, the USAF was taking extra precautions to safeguard the technical secrets and metallurgy configuration of the aircraft. People within the US are perturbed by the fact that the most versatile aircraft is on the verge of extinction. Analysts have lambasted Barack Obama and Robert gates for selling themselves to the Chinese and Russians. The purpose of the US in boosting production of the F-35 is aimed at getting the fifth generation aircraft into production that caters to world wide customers which include Japan, Israel, Singapore and Australia. In fact Australia in its defence White Paper released in 2009 has made provisions for the procurement of a hundred F-35 aircraft. The F-35 aircraft is economically viable because of the involvement of a large consortium of member nations who are propelling the project. Its disadvantage however lays in the fact a number of parts and components are planned to be produced in different countries, which could potentially be disrupted.

    Apart from economic considerations, the technical superiority of the F22 is undisputed. Though the F-35 is lightweight, more operationally flexible with greater payload capacity, it is still to be tested for operational worthiness. Even though the F22 has not seen in a real war but it is considered a trump card for the USAF. Though the opposition for closing the procurement process is driven by emotions, the economics however does not support the continued production of the F- 22 because of its body which consists of 39 percent titanium, 24 per cent composite material, 16 percent aluminium and 1 per cent high grade plastic. As most of the materials used in production are rare metals and very costly it might not be prudent in the long run to continue the program. Maintenance and repairs are also very costly in comparison to other aircraft in the USAF. But there could be viable alternatives to this by assimilating the F-22 technology in a cost effective and new platform. Also there has been a tug of war about the loss of jobs to the tune of 65,000 personnel employed in 46 state ancillary units which are producing hardware for the aircraft. The F-22 has also captured popular imagination through cinematic depictions. The question is whether the US would take the plunge reaping the economies of scale through exports to its allies or would lay the wreath on the much celebrated but secret programme which has given US military personnel and citizens a sense of superiority.