:: April 2016 Letter ::
One of the hardest decisions for anyone is whether or not to raise the dead. Countless cheesy 1950s horror flicks, coupled with the works of HP Lovecraft, clearly show that it is not a good idea. Yet sometimes it’s hard to resist the temptation, as seen in the recent Congressional legislation calling for a study of F-22 restart costs. The F-22’s death was a tragedy, perhaps our industry’s greatest tragedy in decades, and a lost opportunity for the US to cement its global air dominance for decades to come. Perhaps, like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, it can be brought back, even if we know that resurrection often goes very badly.
Actually, the F-22 restart concept has little chance for budget reasons. But there are many interesting lessons that may influence the debate.
First, let’s talk precedent. The civil jetliner world offers zero successful examples of program re-animation (and quite a few gruesome ones), but the military world offers two very useful re-birth stories. The problem is that these two stories provide diametrically opposite lessons.
First was Lockheed’s C-5 Galaxy. After a difficult development period, 81 of these technological marvels were delivered between 1969 and 1973. Then, in the 1980s, the type was reborn as the C-5B, with deliveries of 50 planes between 1986 and 1989. The B model was even better than the A. It cost almost nothing to develop, and gave the US a very strong widebody airlift fleet. It was followed a few years later by the equally difficult but ultimately successful C-17 program. Those C-5Bs are now being re-engined and modernized as C-5Ms, and will remain valuable national assets (alongside those C-17s) until the middle of the century. Resurrecting the C-5 was a good move.
Second was Rockwell’s B-1 bomber. President Carter killed the B-1A in 1977 after four prototypes were built. But in 1981 President Reagan resurrected the type as the B-1B, with 100 built. This was predictably expensive, and the presence of 100 new bombers gave Congress and everyone involved in national defense every rationale to kill the B-2 early, after just 20 were built (plus one prototype) instead of the 132 originally planned. Yet the B-2 was a revolutionary aircraft, as is well known, while the B-1 was a troublesome relic. The Air Force lost its chance at getting large numbers of something transformational, and was instead saddled with 100 holdovers from the pre-stealth age. The B-21 will hopefully give the Air Force what it wanted, only 30 years later. As for the B-1, the service has at times tried to retire them early, preferring to retain the much older (but less troublesome) B-52. Resurrecting the B-1 was a bad move.
How do we view the F-22 in light of these two very different lessons? There are two things to consider. One concerns the future of Sixth Generation fighters. If you think technology will march on, and a fighter designed in 2030 will have all kinds of impressive new features like laser weaponry and artificial intelligence, resurrecting the F-22 looks like resurrecting the B-1: prolonging dependence on old technology at the expense of something new and transformational.
But if you think that stealth fighter technology might have reached a plateau for a few more decades, that’s a different story. A re-started F-22, with new sensors and engines, would rule the skies for decades to come. Much of the technology could come from the F-35 and B-21. As I’m fond of repeating (having once heard it from someone smart), the F-22 is a great air vehicle in search of a great mission equipment package. The F-35 is a great mission equipment package in search of a great air vehicle. It would be like re-starting the C-5, as the re-engined C-5M.
The second factor is the strategic outlook. If you think the US won’t face a peer or near-peer adversary until 2035, then waiting for a new fighter makes sense. But if you think history is coming back faster than we’d like – that the days of hunting insurgents in the Mideast will be replaced by a return to superpower co-existence and friction – then getting more F-22s for the 2020s makes sense. It’s all about deterrence.
My reading of the above two issues: Given the pace of airframe technology development, I think the C-5 analogy works better. And I think superpower politics are coming back faster than we’d like. Therefore, I like the idea of an F-22 re-start, as long as it has completely new systems.
This, of course, means exactly nothing. In addition to the cost of buying the planes, re-engineering the design and other non-recurring costs would be at least $10 billion. The topline defense budget won’t grow, so the only way to fund an F-22 re-start is to either kill the B-21 (unlikely) or drastically cut F-35A procurement (conceivable). If available for export, the F-22B would also displace the F-35A in a few key export markets (Japan, Australia, Israel). Very few politicians or industry leaders would like the idea of the F-22B clobbering the F-35 program (even if a few people in the Air Force would love it). Fun fact, by the way: the F-35A and F-22A price tags (at unit #100) aren’t all that different.
It’s easier to save a patient than to bring him back from the dead. Think back to the decision to kill the F-22, one of the last times anything bipartisan was accomplished in Washington (both Bush/Rumsfeld and Obama/Gates wanted it dead; Gates succeeded). After an enormous investment in creating the finest fighter of all time, the US bought 179, of which 120 are combat-coded. The strategic thinking behind this was non-existent. As I discussed in my May 2009 letter, there were people – otherwise responsible adults – who said the F-22 was irrelevant because “we haven’t even used them in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Even if the F-22 probably won’t be resurrected, we can learn from considering the proposal, particularly as many now realize that building more F-22s would have been a good idea. Maybe one day, political and military leaders will think beyond the next 18 months.
This month’s Teal aircraft binder reports include the Business Aircraft overview, Eurofighter, C-295, H135, and Mirage 2000. Have a great month.
Yours, ‘Til The Navy Gets An F-22C,
© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.