Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recommended ending the the long-standing drama surrounding the F-22 (nee, the F-22A) supersonic fighter, capping the program with a purchase of four more planes in 2009, bringing the total number to 183.
A pair of F-22 Raptors during an Air Force training flight.
(Thomas Meneguin — U.s. Air Force Via Associated Press)
A bit of a sad day for me, really.
There is a nice column in the Washington Post today from the Air Force explaining why they support the decision to end the program, 60 planes shy of the 243 total they had originally estimated to be needed in a post-cold war world, and almost 600 shy of the pre-1989 estimate.
We are often asked: How many F-22s does the Air Force need? The answer, of course, depends on what we are being asked to do. When the program began, late in the Cold War, it was estimated that 740 would be needed. Since then, the Defense Department has constantly reassessed how many major combat operations we might be challenged to conduct, where such conflicts might arise, whether or how much they might overlap, what are the strategies and capabilities of potential opponents, and U.S. objectives.
These assessments have concluded that, over time, a progressively more sophisticated mix of aircraft, weapons and networking capabilities will enable us to produce needed combat power with fewer platforms. As requirements for fighter inventories have declined and F-22 program costs have risen, the department imposed a funding cap and in December 2004 approved a program of 183 aircraft.
Much has been made of the cost over-runs in the F-22 program, and there is some truth to those complaints. Of course, they have been exaggerated in recent years since manufacturing planes is a volume business, and the average cost per plane drops significantly as you increase volume and speed delivery.
It may seem strange to wax nostalgic for a super-sonic aircraft, but I remember the F-22 fondly. When I was in high school, I read Aviation Weekly regularly as one of the requirements for my high school debate research (the topic for the year was space exploration). I remember at the time the race between the F-21 and F-22: competing prototypes for a new air superiority fighter that would line up against the latest generation MiG fighters from the USSR, and which would be able to deliver Mach 2.0+ speeds without afterburners and with low radar reflection.
It was post-1987, so already the era of disillusionment with the ridiculous mediocrity of the US space program had set in. But warplanes were still an area of rapid technological advancement, and raw engineering wonder. It was pre-1991, so the cold war was still there to propel investment in military technology.
The F-22 won the contest, of course. As fate would have it, about the same time, the USSR lost the contest. Almost immediately, the plane and the program were caught in an ongoing battle for existence – a battle that lasted almost twenty years.
There are good arguments by better informed people on the merits and liabilities of the F-22 program. Right now, I’m not really interested in discussing them.
Instead, I want to take a moment to contemplate the wonder and excitement that aerospace used to hold for me and a generation of kids. A time when the space program was filled with the best and the brightest, and when the best engineers devoted themselves to conquering air and space.
In truth, that time pre-dated me. But I still felt the echoes of it in the late 1980s. I was an intern at NASA Ames in 1990-1. I dreamed of a robust space program, and limitless advancement in aerospace.
The F-22 was my desktop picture for the better part of the 1990s for goodness sake.
Of course, the much less impressive F-35 joint strike fighter program will continue. And spurred by Space-X and the private sector, there may even be some signs of life in the US Space Program, particularly once we get rid of the generational vacuum that was the Space Shuttle. The Orion may yet fly, and we may yet have a base on the moon, and land men on Mars. Twenty years later than I had hoped, but better late than never, I suppose.
A moment of silence tonight, however, for the F-22. A truly beautiful aircraft.