As Lockheed Martin, the aerospace corporation which built the aircraft, never tires of telling us, the F-22 Raptor is the best and most advanced air superiority fighter ever built. Its use of the latest stealth technology is supposed to make it invisible to the enemy, while its advanced sensors and avionics gives it a tremendous advantage over any potential opponent. Its combination of maneuverability, speed, and rate of climb are superior to any other aircraft. It is, in short, the perfect aerial killing machine.
That's what we've been told, at any rate. But if the F-22 is so great, why isn’t it patrolling the skies over Libya? After all, once ground attack aircraft have destroyed enemy air defenses, enforcing a no-fly zone is a job for an air superiority fighter like the Raptor. Dispatching a squadron of F-22s to Libya would therefore seem to make perfect sense, and giving them a taste of actual operational service would certainly be good for morale. When the dismemberment of Gaddafi’s air defenses begin, there was much speculation that the F-22 was soon going to see its first operational deployment. So far, however, it has been a no-show.
Unfortunately, the failure of the F-22 Raptor to appear over Libya is the latest sign of something that has become increasingly clear: it is not nearly the plane is has been hyped up to be. In fact, it appears that the federal government spent $65 billion dollars to build less than 200 fighter aircraft which have so many problems that they will, in all likelihood, never see operational service.
According to this article from the Air Force Times, the main reason the F-22 is not being used in the Libyan operation is that it lacks the ability to properly communicate with other aircraft. This simple statement is so shocking as to scarcely be believable, and it could be easily dismissed if it came from a less reliable source. It turns out that the stealth ability of an F-22 Raptor can be maintained only until the aircraft attempts to communicate with another aircraft. Once it does, it can be detected and located by the enemy. This presents an obvious problem, as American military doctrine requires constant intercommunication between aircraft in order to achieve “situational awareness”. If the planes cannot communicate with each other, they cannot fight. The article also says that the Air Force had been working on some sort of solution to this rather stunning problem, but inexplicably ended funding for it last year.
To put it simply, the stealth aspects of the F-22 Raptor cannot be maintained in a combat environment. The main selling point of the corporate promoters of the aircraft, and the one which persuaded Congress to pay out $65 billion of the people’s money, is thus revealed to be overplayed at best and entirely chimerical at worst.
Even without stealth capabilities, though, the F-22 is still arguably the best air superiority fighter in the world, right? Well, it turns out that exaggerations of its stealth are only one of many problems with the F-22. Critically, the unprecedented maintenance requirements make it extremely difficult for the Air Force to keep the aircraft operational at any given time. According to an investigation by the Washington Post, every hour the F-22 spends flying requires a full 30 hours of maintenance word, costing over $40,000. In other words, assuming that an F-22 undertook a single patrol mission requiring three-and-a-half hours of flying, it would then be grounded for half a week in order to undergo maintenance costing $140,000. Indeed, the maintenance costs of the F-22 Raptor are so high that the Air Force has decided to reduce flight training hours by a full one-third in the coming year, because the plane is so expensive to fly.
Even something as simple as water has caused problems for the F-22 Raptor. During a 2009 deployment to Guam, a dozen F-22 Raptors experienced a variety of electrical problems, the cause of which was attributed to rain getting into the cooling systems. Even worse, in early 2010, the entire F-22 Raptor fleet was grounded for a time because water had gotten into their cockpits and rusted the metal on their ejector seats.
The F-22 Raptor is an incredibly expensive warplane. The program has cost $65 billion and is producing 187 aircraft, bringing the cost per aircraft to an astounding $348 million. Considering the poor maintenance record of the Raptor, and the fact that it cannot employ its stealth capabilities without compromising its ability to communicate with other aircraft, it's entirely possible that the Pentagon wants to keep the F-22 Raptor from getting too close to an active combat soon simply because they are far too expensive to risk in battle. Since the F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s of the Air Force and Navy are more than capable of handling the Libyan operation without the help of the F-22, better to keep the Raptors out of harm's way.
Of course, this raises an obvious question: under what circumstances would the F-22 Raptor ever be used? Clearly, even assuming their major flaws were properly addressed and corrected, we would only need F-22 Raptors in the event of a full-scale military conflict with an enemy on technological par with us. Needless to say, the United States and the European Union are not going to war with one another anytime soon. In the nightmarish scenario of a war between the United States and either China or Russia, the F-22 Raptor is unlikely to be of much use in a conflict which would probably last a single day and see most major cities on both sides destroyed by nuclear fire.
In short, the F-22 is too expensive to risk in the type of conflicts in which the United States is likely to be involved in the 21st Century. By contrast, the type of conflict in which the F-22 might come in handy are almost certainly never going to happen. We've spent $65 billion on a plane that is probably never going to be of any use to us.
It's worth pointing out that while Congress was appropriating billions upon billions of dollars for the effectively useless F-22 Raptor, soldiers in Iraq were being blown to pieces on a regular basis because the Army lacked properly-armored vehicles to protect them from improvised explosive devices. The money Congress wasted on the F-22 and other dubious projects should have been diverted to serve the needs of the soldiers on the ground, or simply cut from the budget altogether in order to reduce the deficit.
The strange saga of the F-22 Raptor should be a clarion call for a deep and comprehensive reform of our government's defense procurement policies.