A jet fighter with no one left to fight

Threat: The Air Force, in a bid to justify the costly fighter, searches for new missions to ensure its future

July 19, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,Sun Staff

Imagine the scene: Four advanced Soviet fighter planes streak across communist Poland for a confrontation with NATO. Suddenly, the lead jet erupts in a fireball, followed quickly by the next three.

As the surviving pilots drift toward the ground in parachutes, they finally get a glimpse of their attacker -- a single U.S. F-22 Raptor fighter jet, all but invisible to radar, roaring by at supersonic speed.

Unfortunately for the Air Force and Lockheed Martin Corp., that scene no longer relates to the real world, where the fall of communism and the collapse of the once mighty Soviet military have eliminated the adversary for which the F-22 was designed.

Now the $62.7 billion program soldiers on into a far different world of terrorist attacks and ballistic-missile threats. Even while the conflicts in Iraq and Yugoslavia demonstrated that major air-to-air battles no longer are likely, supporters of the F-22 have ensured its survival in part by exaggerating the foreign military threat.

Advocates have resorted to noting the dangers of countries such as Canada and Australia, contradicting another branch of the military and coining terms for the jet such as "information platform" in an attempt to reinvent its mission and keep it relevant.

But even some who admire the jet say the military is overstating the need for it, especially at a time when the services say they cannot afford to keep troops ready to fight.

"The F-22 will be the best fighter in the world, no doubt about it. But there ain't any opposition out there," said Williamson Murray, visiting professor of military history at the Army War College. "It's sort of like holding a boxing tournament for a high school and bringing Mike Tyson in."

The Air Force itself characterizes the F-22 as overkill, saying it wants its pilots to have an overwhelming advantage.

Anyone who has been in battle would applaud that goal, said William E. Odom, a retired Army general and former head of the National Security Agency. It's just that the fractured, post-Cold War world has changed the rules.

"The F-22 is like somebody buying an 18-wheeler truck who needs a slick sedan to take him up to a bank meeting. It's a misfit," Odom said.

Creating a new mission

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Congress and the military struggled to understand the significance of what was already being called "the year of revolution."

Rep. John R. Kasich, an Ohio Republican, complained early in 1990 that he had seen a military presentation that morning on nuclear strike capability followed by a debate on sending aid to Russia. "What is going on here? Where really are we in the world, and what is our approach going to be?" Kasich pleaded.

Many sensed a rare opportunity to pare whole programs from a defense budget still swollen from the Reagan buildup. Then-Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney said in a special round of hearings that he had commissioned a "Major Aircraft Review" to see whether four costly warplane programs were still needed.

One of them was the Air Force's Advanced Tactical Fighter, or ATF, which would become the F-22. The plane had been created for a specific reason:

"We are designing the ATF to [combat] ... a technologically advanced, numerically superior enemy," the Air Force had reported in 1987 and 1988. "The program schedule is driven by the threat: The Soviets are already fielding new fighters" that match current U.S. jets, the F-15 and F-16.

Behind the scenes, some in the Pentagon knew that the F-22 would survive the Major Aircraft Review -- not because of military necessity, but because the people assessing the fighter had supported it all along.

"Given the composition of the working-level staff on the review, it is not likely that anything but 'press on' would be supported from the 'analytical' data," Ronald G. Garant, director of investment for the Pentagon's financial office, warned in a March 1990 memo to his boss.

Garant, who still holds that position but declined to discuss the memo, wrote that three programs -- the B-2 stealth bomber, the Navy's A-12 Avenger attack plane and the early version of the F-22 -- were going to be justified regardless of outside concerns such as cost and need. "All three of these programs suffer from having been born in the undisciplined world of compartmented programs where money is no object and the realities of the world are never a consideration."

Of those three, only the F-22 has survived in something like its original form. The B-2 was scaled far back, and the A-12 was canceled.

Clearing Cheney's review with only a two-year program delay was a milestone for the F-22. The next year, 1991, the Air Force chose Lockheed Corp. and its partners Boeing Co. and General Dynamics Corp. to build the F-22 over a competing proposal from Northrop and McDonnell Douglas Corp.

From then on, even as the Soviet Union dissolved, the Air Force gathered momentum in recharacterizing the plane to protect it from its Cold War origins.

'Exaggerated threats'

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