Bands were playing at an aircraft factory in Georgia, but the mood was more subdued in Washington on Wednesday as the Air Force unveiled the first test model of the most sophisticated fighter ever built: the F-22.
Big, fast and powerful, the jet - nicknamed the Raptor - is the plane the Air Force hopes to ride well into the next century. But the fate of the F-22 remains shrouded in doubt.
Last week, an independent Pentagon team reported that the jet may cost $7 million more apiece than the $71 million target price, and $16 billion more than projected over the life of the program.
Some critics contend the per-copy price may actually be twice the recent estimate. And earlier this year, an option was presented to Congress for canceling the F-22 altogether.
With the Cold War won, some ask, against whom will this thoroughbred run? “We’re … in an arms race with ourselves,” one critic says.
The Air Force and Lockheed Martin Corp., which designed the jet, say the F-22 will be a “first-day-of-the-war” fighter, capable of flying unaided into the teeth of enemy air defenses to bomb targets or shoot down enemy airplanes.
It has state-of-the-art stealth - or the ability to be almost invisible to enemy radar - along with the size and power of older brothers like the F-15.
Its potent power plant has movable engine nozzles for agility, and the punch to fly supersonic without using the gas-guzzling, radar-visible afterburner.
Plus, its on-board radars and sensors will allow it to see and kill enemy planes well before they see the F-22: “First look, first shot, first kill,” Air Force officials say.
The Air Force wants to buy 438 of the airplanes over several decades - down from the 750 it wanted initially, yet still with a hefty overall cost of between $48 billion and $64 billion, including early development costs.
The jet’s first flight is scheduled for next month, although it is not expected to enter service until early in the next century.
But opponents say the nation already has a stealthy jet that can survive hostile air defenses. The F-117 did just fine in the flak-filled skies over Baghdad in 1991.
As for the enemy, the critics say, the F-22 is likely to find the skies empty of opposition aircraft in any future war. Most potential adversaries have air forces that are decades behind what the United States has now.
“There are a number of countries that have advanced aircraft,” said retired Air Force Col. Robert Gaskin, a former fighter pilot and Pentagon planner who supports the plane. “Most of them are our friends.”
In addition, the F-22 program is one of three gigantic military airplane projects now under way, with a cumulative price tag of $350 billion to produce an estimated 4,400 jets during the next several decades.
Even friends of the Pentagon say all of these programs and planes won’t be completed.
“If we don’t have the F-22 in sufficient numbers, there’s a good chance that in the next war, America could be beaten in the air,” said Gaskin, the retired Air Force colonel. “It’s that simple.”
“What far too many people fail to understand today is if you lose control of the air, you might as well not do anything else … If the F-22 is ever derailed, the American ‘revolution in military affairs’ will suffer a serious wound.”
But others say control of the air involves more than just a superior fighter.
Even so, some believe the F-22, with no potential adversaries anywhere on the horizon, could be the last of the legendary fighter line.
“It’s probably going to be seen as the last hurrah for a certain kind of fighting,” said Eliot Cohen, a Johns Hopkins University professor who directed an Air Force survey of Gulf War air power.
“I think those days are numbered,” he said. “They’re not over yet. But without an enormous leap of imagination, you can see when those days will come to an end at some point.”
“Let’s face it,” he said. “Most opponents that we’re going to face have no intention whatsoever of duking it out with us up in the air.”
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