There were a number of reasons last week to look up to the sky and wonder about the future of airpower. In a world in which the United States will have smaller ground and naval forces, we will likely become more dependent on land- and sea-based airpower to deter or defeat enemies. The proper employment of air assets as part of a joint force allows for nearly instantaneous response to crises, saves American lives, and can bring pinpoint devastation to an enemy’s forces and command-and-control systems. Yet along with the sunshine, clouds dot the airpower horizon.
Last Tuesday, the last F-22 Raptor rolled off the production line, ending the program at 186 planes, a fraction of the 750 originally planned. The Raptor is widely hailed as the finest air-superiority fighter ever made. Yet the Pentagon has consistently refused to deploy it in combat or for reconaissance duties in the Middle East. Moreover, problems with the oxygen-generation system grounded the F-22 fleet for months this year, and a permanent fix has not yet been found. Yet with all the research and development finished on the plane, each new F-22 was costing just about $150 million. More important, the F-22 is likely the only fighter that retains the ability to penetrate the airspace of any potential adversary, due to its speed, stealth, and operational ceiling. As Iran inches closer to an atomic bomb and tensions in Asia continue, the F-22 served as both a symbol and a guarantor of U.S. control of the skies. Unfortunately, 186 F-22s are far too few to be able to assure U.S. military commanders of the freedom of action they will need in the future.
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