The Strange Case of the (Nearby) But Missing F-22s Over Libya

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So the Air Force’s latest and greatest warplane – the $412 million per copy F-22 – has now been MIA in Iraq, Afghanistan and – most surprisingly – in imposing the no-fly zone over Libya. How come? Especially when it was already in the neighborhood on the eve of that conflict? It raises a whole new version of the so-called “plans-reality mismatch” that was the basis of Pentagon analyst Chuck Spinney’s famed 1980s’ briefs that won all sorts of acclaim – and infamy, including the cover of Time.

But Spinney was pointing out the difference between what the Pentagon wanted, and what the Pentagon could afford. The 21st Century version of the plans-reality mismatch is more fundamental: why are we paying through the nose to buy weapons we’re not using?

The F-22 – a fast-flying aircraft that is purportedly the world’s best at eluding enemy radars, didn’t become operational until 2005. It planely wasn’t required for Afghanistan, in any event. But its stealthiness would have been key in enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya. Since it’s supposedly immune to being shot down by Libya’s air defenses, there would have been no need for that initial, largely U.S., bombing campaign to wipe them out.

In fact, it appears the U.S. military went out of its way to use every warplane in its inventory except the F-22 in the Libyan fight: A-10s, AC-130s, AV-8Bs, B-1s, B-2s, F-15s, F-16s and F-18s all saw action. Why the F-22 didn’t see action depends on whom you ask.

Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, told senators on March 17 – two days before the first bombs fell on Libya – that the F-22 would play a key role in any such action. “It will be — would be — useful, and I would have the expectation that at least in the early days it certainly would be used.” He offered up that answer in response to a convenient question from Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., whose state plays a major role in building the F-22.

Air Force boosters were salivating at the prospect of the F-22’s combat debut. One veteran fighter pilot privately told Aviation Week magazine Libya would be a “perfect scenario” for the F-22’s baptism by fire.

Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute, a think tank funded, in part, by major defense contractors, said Gates earlier had “effectively shut down discussion of the no-fly option” by warning how difficult it would be to impose. “Apparently, the secretary forgot that he has an airplane specifically designed to operate in contested airspace, full of hostile SAMs and aircraft,” Goure wrote March 7. “It is the world’s first fifth-generation fighter, the F-22. With its stealth features, supercruise power and advanced sensors, the F-22 is designed to operate against air defenses operating so-called triple-digit SAMs and lots of fighters.”

Nearly two weeks later, the U.S. piece of the Libyan war began — and ended — without the F-22s. When Rear Adm. Gerald Hueber, chief of staff of the operation, was asked how come the F-22 was AWOL after four days of action, he responded forthrightly: “I don’t have that…answer.”

One reason for leaving the F-22 out of the action was the fact that the U.S. and its allies were determined to impose more than a no-fly zone over Libya. They wanted to protect civilians, and a no-fly zone can only do so much to halt slaughter on the ground. The F-22, while pre-eminent against aerial threats, remains poor at detecting ground targets six years after going operational. Its APG-77 radar’s ground-hunting capability is still in development. Even once it works, the F-22 can carry no more than eight 250-pound bombs.

Two weeks after telling Congress the F-22 “certainly” would be used, Air Force chief Schwartz pulled what pilots call a chandelle — a 180-degree turn. “Had the F-22s been in Europe, stationed in Europe both closer in proximity and therefore more available, they undoubtedly would have been used,” Schwartz told a Senate panel March 30. “It really was an expedient judgment with respect to putting the plan together to executing on a very rapid timeline.” (This is airpower the general is discussing — airpower as in break-the-sound-barrier — airpower like the B-1s and B-2 that flew missions over Libya…from their bases inside the United States.)

So much for Schwartz’s “certainly” of a couple of weeks earlier. In fact, a person close to the F-22 program says six F-22s were in the neighborhood — in the United Arab Emirates — shortly before the Libyan action began. Specifically, they were in there from late January until early March. “The F-22 squadron was made ready to deploy for Libya ops at least twice,” he adds. “The deployed unit was delayed in its redeployment for potential use, but then cleared to redeploy.”

Retired Air Force lieutenant general Dave Deptula, a former fighter pilot, air war boss and Air Force intel chief, says politics kept the F-22 on the sidelines. “The F-22 could have established a no-fly zone over Libya without any other airplanes being required to overfly Libya,” he says. “That would have obviated the need for any other coalition partner from participating, and therefore was not a desirable option politically.”

But there’s also a bigger lesson here than alliances, and the glue needed — or not needed — to hold them together. The F-22 has been the wedge issue between Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Air Force since Gates took the Pentagon helm four years ago. The Air Force was hell-bent on buying more F-22s, and Gates was just as determined to stop the program at 188 jets.

The F-22 is a “niche, silver-bullet solution for one or two potential scenarios, specifically the defeat of a highly advanced enemy fighter fleet,” Gates said in 2009 when he was fighting to slay the F-22 dragon over strong Air Force opposition. “The F-22, to be blunt, does not make much sense any place else in the spectrum of conflict.”

Gates went on to elaborate in a way that angers many wearing Air Force blue. “Supporters of the F-22 lately have promoted its use for an ever-expanding list of potential missions,” he noted. “These range from protecting the homeland from seaborne cruise missiles to, as one retired general recommended on television, using F-22s to go after Somali pirates, who are — in many cases, teenagers with AK-47s — a job we already happen to know is better done, and at rather less cost, by a few Navy SEALs.”

Ouch. That’s arguing with extreme prejudice (of course, quoting retired generals spewing forth on TV is like shooting fish in a barrel, Mr. Secretary).

Deptula acknowledges the precise reason the F-22 was a no-show in the no-fly may never be known. “For a variety of reasons it is doubtful that the actual reason will be made public,” he says. “Unfortunately, some reasons why may be to mask the decision that was made by the [Pentagon] leadership [i.e., Gates] to terminate the total buy of F-22s at significantly less than the actual military requirement, and/or to avoid any use of the F-22 that highlights its capability that might call for its continued production.”

Gates ultimately won this fight, ending F-22 purchases at 188 planes at nearly a half-a-billion dollars each. Yet, in the final analysis, the program met its budget target. “The F-22 spent about the same amount that they originally estimated,” Moshe Schwartz, a weapons-buying expert at the Congressional Research Service, told a Senate panel last month. There was only one problem: “They got a third of the aircraft” originally projected for that sum.

The Government Accountability Office summed it up like this last month:

Despite a 70% reduction in quantities for the program, total acquisition costs have only decreased by 14%, due to research and development and average procurement unit cost increases. As a result, program acquisition unit costs for the F-22 Raptor have almost tripled, from $139 million to $412 million per airplane. For the current 188 aircraft program, the $273 million increase per plane translates to $51.3 billion in lost buying power for the F-22 program as a whole.

Poof! More than $50 billion — gone! — just like that. Breathtaking, heart-breaking, infuriating, whether you’re a pilot, a patriot, or a taxpayer – or some combination thereof.

So the nation has paid triple its estimated cost for an airplane apparently unsuited for any of the three wars the nation is now waging. Kind of makes you hope we do better buying the F-35 warplane, under development for the Air Force, Marines and Navy. Compared to the F-22, it’s supposed to be a bargain: 2,457 planes for $383 billion, only $156 million apiece. As of today.