(CNSNews.com) - Lockheed Martin is starting work this month on its latest multi-billon dollar contract to build 60 F-22 Raptors, the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world. But many critics, including the Government Accountability Office, are calling the continued production of the Raptor a costly mistake for U.S. taxpayers and U.S. security.
"It makes anyone angry who is concerned about the real defense of the country and not abusing the taxpayer," said Pierre Sprey, the man who designed the F-16 and A-10 fighters. "This is the opposite."
Sprey was one of three men who made up the so-called "Fighter Mafia" in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Sprey, along with John Boyd and Col. Everest Riccioni, helped revolutionize American aircraft design, challenging many of the notions under which the U.S. military had operated for years.
He said the F-22 is a near-perfect example of what the "Fighter Mafia" told the military to avoid.
"The F-16A, as it was in 1986, can whip today's F-22," said Sprey. "You'd think the F-22 would be able to whip some antique."
Sprey said the Raptor is too heavy, reliant on sensors and other technology, slow, and too reliant on stealth to be useful in today's combat environment over rough terrain against a relatively unsophisticated, guerilla enemy. That combination creates a "double whammy" for taxpayers: a less effective, more expensive aircraft.
Yet Congress voted to approve a contract extension for the F-22 last year at a cost of $6.2 billion.
The last of the jets bought under the contract will be delivered in 2010. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) praised the contract at a press conference in early August, saying the F-22 is "the world's most advanced fighter and will ensure that the U.S. owns the skies for many years to come."
Chambliss also cited the use of a multi-year contract to buy the jets -- a move that required a special vote from Congress because such multi-year contracts are illegal -- as a cost-savings measure.
"That is exactly what the F-22 multi-year contract will do, by securing $411 million in savings and allowing the Defense Department contractor to conduct business better, faster, and cheaper," Chambliss said at the same press conference.
Defense analysts, however, said Chambliss is wrong about the savings to taxpayers, on two levels. First, the Government Accountability Office, in a 2006 report on the multi-year contract proposal, said the contract is actually more expensive when all factors are considered.
Secondly, because the jets aren't necessary, the government could have saved the entire $6.2 billion by not buying these 60 planes.
"It's too puny of a force, and it will not fly often enough to have any influence on any major conflict whatsoever," said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Strauss Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. "Al Qaeda doesn't have an air force and wants us to have things like the F-22 for us to waste our resources on."
Even with the latest contract, the Air Force is buying a total of only 183 Raptors, after spending more than $60 billion to develop the fighter.
Wheeler said the Raptor isn't designed to perform an air-to-ground mission (which has been the primary role for the Air Force in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq), and the small size of the force (the Air Force originally asked for more than 700 of the jets) would make it relatively useless in an air war against China, widely considered to be the only nation capable of engaging the United States in a conventional war.
Proponents of the program tend to agree with Wheeler's assessment, but draw different conclusions.
"The limitation to 183 F-22s means that we can only afford to base 58 between Alaska and Hawaii. So far, we are not putting them on Okinawa or Guam. I don't expect the Chinese to limit production of their 5th generation fighters (aircraft like the F-22) to 58," said Rick Fisher, an expert on the Chinese military and a vice president with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
"Given the current Chinese threat and their potential transition to 5th gen combat aircraft, the prospect of only 58 F-22s as our front line of defense in Asia is quite depressing," said Fisher.
Tom Ehrhard, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a former Air Force officer, said the F-22, no matter how many are built, is a key component to the United States' continued air dominance and is vital to the Air Force's ability to fight a potential war with a "peer competitor" such as China.
He said the extreme cost of the program and its long lifespan is indicative of a problem with the military's purchasing program as a whole, and not an indictment of the Raptor.
"There's sort of a deadly dance that occurs between the people who are setting out the requirements and Congress who's funding it," explained Ehrhard. "It's like they feed on each other, and it's a major negative spiral."
Ehrhard admitted the small F-22 force could be beaten by a huge number of less advanced Chinese aircraft, but he said the Raptor will be as useful as a deterrent as it would be a battlefield weapon.
Because the Raptor is so far advanced beyond any other plane in the skies, Ehrhard said the Raptor will force other countries to react to the United States.
"We want to force our adversaries to be more defensive, and this is a system that does that," said Ehrhard. "It forces them to be defensive, and it has a huge deterrent effect by virtue of its presence, so these are things in air power that matter."
Critics of the program remain unconvinced.
The government watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste called the F-22 the biggest pork barrel project authorized in the latest defense budget, and the federally funded Government Accountability Office said in a 2006 letter, "the Department of Defense has not demonstrated the need or value for making further investments in the F22A program."
With proposals being floated to create a radically altered F-22 as a bomber (the F-22B) and a debate looming in Congress about selling the ultra-advanced fighter to U.S. allies such as Japan, Israel, and Australia, the experts agree the Raptor debate (and its price tag) is not going to go away.
Proponents of the program argue that the Air Force should buy more Raptors to flesh out its existing squadrons. Opponents suggest that improvements to the venerable A-10 would better serve the U.S. in fighting 21st century wars.
In the meantime, the tax dollars will continue to flow and the jets will continue to fly, though Wheeler and Sprey said the F-22 has yet to be deployed to combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.
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