The Final Raptor…

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F-22 tail number 4195 rolled off Lockheed Martin’s Marietta, Ga., assembly line on Tuesday. It was the 187th, and last, of the fifth-generation super-stealth fighters to be built. When the program began – the first F-22 rolled off the line in 1997 – the Air Force said it needed 750 of them.

There is some additional assumption of risk because of the greatly reduced buy. But the goal of leadership, in the military as well as among its civilian overseers, is to calibrate the right level of risk for the country to accept.

Four years after the first F-22 rolled off the assembly line, 9/11 happened. It led to two wars, each lasting about a decade, in which the F-22 was never used. In fact, the F-22 has never been flown in any combat mission, anywhere. It’s latest price tag: $358 million, each.

The bottom line is that the F-22 helped sow the seeds for its own shrunken inventory with too-rosy cost and schedule projections, as this 2009 report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments made clear:

Over time, as the planned buy dropped from the 750 F-22s originally envisioned to less than 200, program-unit costs ballooned to over $350 million per F-22 because the large research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) investment—over $24.3 billion —had to be allocated to fewer and fewer aircraft. However, even the unit flyaway cost, which excludes RDT&E, grew substantially. In 1988 the ATF program office established a flyaway unit cost goal of $35 million per plane in FY 1985 dollars, or roughly $60 million in FY 2009 dollars. As of May 2009, the average flyaway unit cost for 175 production F-22s had grown to $158.8 million. Schedule fared no better in the case of the F-22. The Dem/Val phase, which funded the Lockheed/Boeing/General Dynamics and Northrop/McDonnell Douglas teams to develop two flying prototypes each, began in 1986. The Air Force finally declared initial operational capability (IOC) with the 27th Fighter Squadron at Langley Air Force Base (AFB), Virginia, in December 2005, almost two decades later.

The Air Force salivated over the F-22 and spent years telling Congress and anyone else who would listen it was vital to protecting the nation. I’ve salivated over the prospect of buying a Porsche 911 Carrera S and insisting to my civilian master that it was vital to protecting our status in the neighborhood. Both arguments have about the same merit. Too bad Congress lacks my wife’s common-sense, clear-eyed vision of the future: the Air Force, after all, got about 25% of the jets it originally said it needed. I’m still waiting for a quarter of that 911 to show up in my driveway.