What’s Wrong with Weapons Acquisitions?

F-22: Success, Failure, or Both?

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When the first of the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 Raptors was officially fielded in 2005, it was without question the world’s most advanced fighter, far surpassing any of its competitors. It was also, in many ways, an acquisitions failure.

This fighter jet had been conceived in the 1980s as a counter to two hypothetical Soviet aircraft that military analysts believed likely to be fielded by 2010. To meet the projected threat, the F-22 was designed as a “fifth generation” aircraft having stealth technology, supercruise capability, high maneuverability, and a state-of-the-art avionics suite. In other words, it was a fighter pilot’s dream machine. At a projected and highly optimistic cost of US $35 million per plane (or $74 million in today’s dollars), 750 of them were to be fielded by 1995.

“The F-22 demanded a step ahead in technology across multiple fronts that had not been done before,” says Ralph Heath, executive vice president of aeronautics for Lockheed Martin, the lead contractor on the F-22.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, the biggest threat to the F-22 was no longer those two as-yet-unfielded Soviet fighters but the Air Force’s own “fourth generation” F-15 fighter. Many analysts argued that the F-22 was no longer needed and that upgrading the F-15 was more than adequate. Others countered that the F¿22 was “twice as good” as the F-15 and therefore worth pursuing.

To damp down the debate, then Deputy Secretary of Defense William Perry directed the Air Force in 1993 to ready a prototype F-22 for a “fly-off” against the F-15. If proven sufficiently better than its predecessor, the F-22 would go into production.

Throughout the F-22’s development, Lockheed experienced a number of technological problems, particularly with the plane’s avionics, its stealth capability, and its engine. “We had to refresh [technology] early in the production cycle, actually even before we concluded development, because of obsolescence of some of the electronic components,” Heath says. By the time the first F-22 went into service in 2005, its avionics systems had undergone at least three such refresh cycles. As development costs rose, the number of F-22s was repeatedly cut, to 648 in 1990, 442 in 1994, 339 in 1997, and 276 in 2003.

The fly-off was never held, but the F-22 did perform well enough in its operational tests to go into production—10 years behind schedule. Even so, the Pentagon further reduced the order to 183 planes in 2006 to save money. The cost of each F-22 (the total cost of its development and production divided by the number of aircraft procured) is now over $300 million. To help pay for its F-22s, the Air Force has scaled back on upgrades to the F-15 and other aircraft and also cut personnel. And it continues to argue that it needs at least 381 F-22s to meet its mission requirements.

Others are less enamored of the fighter. The late Edward Hirsch, a leading proponent of reforming the acquisitions process, considered the aircraft a failure, because in not meeting its cost and schedule objectives, it drained off funding from other worthwhile programs. “The warfighter expects to have a platform capable of supporting his mission and the mission of the Department of Defense,” Hirsch said in an interview shortly before his death last year. “If that program is so costly as to jeopardize all other platforms, you can’t consider it to be an outstanding success.”

Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates has questioned the plane’s necessity, pointing out that “the F-22 has not performed a single mission” in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

The F-22’s troubled procurement hasn’t stopped the Air Force from planning for a “sixth generation” aircraft to be built in the 2020s.