This post is dedicated to Razor and his band of brothers.
Renae Merle of the Washington Post has a well balanced article today on the F-22 Raptor. Dawn's Early Light has written about the Raptor in an assessment of the COPE India 2004 "loss" by American F-15C pilots by the Indian Air Force with a mixture of Russian SU-30s and SU-27s, French Mirage 2000 and other older Russian fighters.
The Raptor is notable for its ability to glide across the sky and move in extremely impressive ways (for WaPo video click here). It is a stealth aircraft, unlike the all other US aircraft except for the F-117A and B-2 bomber. But unlike the F-117A and B-2 bomber, it is an air to air combat aircraft. The F-22 has a 360 degree battle screen for the pilot helping him to track threats and prioritize targets. It is the most sophisticated aircraft in the world and at least a generation ahead of the Eurofighter or Russian SU-30MKI.
The program, conceived in the early 80s was originally planned for over 781 aircraft. The article sums up the budget battles over the aircraft:
"The Bush administration has proposed cutting $10 billion from the program over the next five years, leaving enough to buy fewer than half the 381 planes the Air Force says it needs. And the plane will have to compete, in an age of budget deficits, with plans to refurbish the Army and fund an even more expensive fighter program, the Joint Strike Fighter, which is still years from delivery."
In discussing future conflicts the article is good to note threats that are not similar to Iraq, such as a resurgent Russia (not likely, but possible) to insurance against a conflict with China (See DEL coverage here).
"How many Raptors the Pentagon buys -- no one expects the program to be killed -- is part of a debate over what kind of wars the nation's leaders should fear most: a large-scale battle with another industrial power, where the Raptor could dominate, or skirmishes in rogue states such as Iran or Syria, where ground forces would lead.
The Air Force and Lockheed Martin Corp., the main contractor, say the Raptor is essential in either scenario. They tout it as an insurance policy in any conflict against China or a resurgent Russia, and to counter increasingly sophisticated surface-to-air missiles with longer range and better targeting capabilities. 'We have made it look so easy for so long, people don't realize how hard it is to establish air dominance,' Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert III, the Air Force's deputy director of strategic planning, said in an interview. 'Iraq is not a good example of what we'll see in the future.'"
Concerning its mission and the overlap of some of the Joint Strike Fighter roles:
"The Raptor's new focus opened a new line of criticism. 'It appears by making the F/A-22 more of a multi-role combat aircraft, the Air Force is blurring the distinction between the Raptor and Joint Strike Fighter,' a recent Congressional Research Service report on the program noted. In fact, the cheaper F-35 strike fighter will have a 'superior payload,' carrying 14,600 pounds of bombs compared with the Raptor's 2,000, the report said.
As the number of Raptors expected to be purchased drops -- from 750 to as few as 178 -- the price has escalated dramatically from the original price tag of $35 million. That has prompted some to advocate the continued purchase of F-15s.
The Air Force dismisses that option as uneconomical. But officials working on the Quadrennial Defense Review, a major rethinking of U.S. military strategy that will help determine how many Raptors are produced, have asked Boeing how much it would cost to build more than 100 new F-15s, according to sources familiar with the process.'
The F-15 is an exceptional multipurpose aircraft. However, the cost of putting new F-15s into production (approximately $70 million a piece) compared to the extra $20 million or so a piece for the F-22 makes it a better choice, especially given its future capability and technological edge.
While the War on Terror has made this type of aircraft unnecessary, the US current conflicts are not necessarily indicative of future conflicts that we will face, such as a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Additionally, some critics like to point to the future of UAVs (see DEL here or the best UAV blog here). I believe UAVs have an important role in the future of all of the US armed service branches. However they serve multiple different roles, such as surveillance, infantry support, signal intelligence, air-to ground platform and growing other areas of development. It is wrong to confuse the debate over UAVs versus piloted aircraft as an "either/or" decision. The tank and armored personnel carrier are similar but serve completely different purposes. While technology in UAVs is advancing rapidly, we are still far away from a perfect technological environment where real time human decisions and birds eye view are no longer required.
The Washington Post had a live chat today with the author and Maj.Charles Corcoran, a pilot of the F/A-22. The questions are good and several deal with COPE India (not referenced by name), the SU-30 and beyond visual range (BVR) concepts.