Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Lost Fighter

Why the world needs the F-22 to counter a rising China.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Following the Obama administration's lead, the U.S. Senate voted last week to halt production of the F-22 Raptor.  Critics of this decision have understandably focused on how it will diminish U.S. airpower. But few realize the extent of the damage this shortsighted cut will also do to the military capability of U.S. allies. Indeed, the geopolitical implications of the cut may prove just as serious in the long-run as the domestic consequences, yet they are rarely discussed, even by the F-22's defenders.

Consider the United States' Asian allies -- Japan, South Korea, and Australia -- as well as its emerging security partner, India. All require next-generation fighters as they upgrade their arsenals. For them, the need for an aircraft like the F-22 could be very real in the near future. They happen to live in a region where power politics still matters and high-end air and naval capabilities are of primary importance. All of these countries are concerned about growing Chinese military power.  Not surprisingly, Japan is expressing the most interest in the F-22, but other allies and friends, from South Korea to India, are a good bet to follow. These countries are not suffering from a case of what U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates disparagingly calls "Next-War-itis." The security threats they face are current and ongoing.   

Following the Obama administration’s lead, the U.S. Senate voted last week to halt production of the F-22 Raptor.  Critics of this decision have understandably focused on how it will diminish U.S. airpower. But few realize the extent of the damage this shortsighted cut will also do to the military capability of U.S. allies. Indeed, the geopolitical implications of the cut may prove just as serious in the long-run as the domestic consequences, yet they are rarely discussed, even by the F-22’s defenders.

Consider the United States’ Asian allies — Japan, South Korea, and Australia — as well as its emerging security partner, India. All require next-generation fighters as they upgrade their arsenals. For them, the need for an aircraft like the F-22 could be very real in the near future. They happen to live in a region where power politics still matters and high-end air and naval capabilities are of primary importance. All of these countries are concerned about growing Chinese military power.  Not surprisingly, Japan is expressing the most interest in the F-22, but other allies and friends, from South Korea to India, are a good bet to follow. These countries are not suffering from a case of what U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates disparagingly calls "Next-War-itis." The security threats they face are current and ongoing.   

China currently fields hundreds of fourth generation fighters, which the F-22 was specifically designed to defeat, and also has an active fifth-generation fighter program. Russia, which is China’s primary weapons supplier, may be close to flight-testing its own next-generation fighter, which has been designed to match up against the F-22. It’s a safe bet that its progress is being watched closely in Bejing. In short, China is operating increasingly advanced fighters and shows no sign of halting their continued development.

China’s neighbors have good reason to be concerned about its improving air capabilities. It has ongoing maritime territorial disputes with South Korea and Japan, and an accelerating military development competition with India. Its apparent desires to dominate the South China Sea and develop an ocean-going navy are only adding to the region’s sense of a power shift. Asia has enjoyed 30 years of peace and prosperity, but the next 30 years may not be so peaceful if the United States doesn’t work with our allies to maintain a favorable balance of power.

America should need and want its allies to enhance their air and naval power. The fighter they will want is the F-22. Is it the perfect air-power answer for the region? No. But for the next few decades at least, it would have been the best practical option. The F-22 is a faster, more maneuverable, and stealthier plane than the still-in-development F-35. The F-22 was designed for supremacy in air-to-air combat and to defeat sophisticated air defenses.

Beijing is currently constructing one of the most advanced integrated air defense systems the world has ever seen. As a senior Air Force intelligence official recently told Aviation Week, "The F-35 is not an F-22 by a long shot. … There’s no way it’s going to penetrate Chinese Air Defenses if there’s ever a clash."

This is not to say that the F-35 doesn’t also have an important role to play in Asia. The two fifth-generation stealthy jets complement one another. The F-22 is needed to establish air dominance and eliminate air defenses, so that the F-35, a strike fighter, can attack ground and maritime targets.  It is worth remembering that precisely because  the F-15 and F-16 complemented one another,  these fourth generation fighters were attractive to many more allies than we expected.  Similarly, if the F-22 remains available for export,  more allies will be interested in the F-35 .  They are regarded as a package deal.

The United States has a vital interest in nurturing strong allies and strong alliances in this dynamic region. Its allies want and need both fifth generation fighters. The logic is quite simple. The more U.S. allies have the capability to defend against Chinese airpower,  the less confident the Chinese will be that they can resort to force to settle disputes. And yet, according to President Obama — who is not known for his thriftiness — continued F-22 production would represent "an inexcusable waste of money." Unfortunately, keeping the peace isn’t cheap, though it is far less costly in the long run than the alternative.

Michael Mazza is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a senior non-resident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute.

Daniel Blumenthal is the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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