There’s something discomfiting about spending tens of billions of dollars more on a weapon that virtually everyone realises is useless in the ongoing war against faceless insurgents and terrorists. It is with some relief then that the US Air Force announced the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22A Raptor’s operational debut without resorting to the overstated marketing campaigns that have sometimes characterised the programme’s development.

The F-22A is many things, but it is clearly not part of the solution for coalition commanders trying to keep order on the streets of Baghdad and Bagram. The F-22’s design role was air superiority, not ground attack. USAF Chief of Staff Gen Michael Moseley agrees. “In the role that we’re in now with [Boeing] F-15Es carrying 2,000-pounders and [Lockheed] F-16s carrying 500- and 2,000-pounders, does the F-22 bring something significantly different to this fight this afternoon? The answer is no.”

Suffice to say, the 27th Fighter Squadron now equipped with 12 combat-capable F-22As is not on its way to a base in Kuwait or Qatar anytime soon. To be fair the F-22A may have a respectable air-to-ground capability, but it is far too precious and rare a resource for the USAF to be committing it to the street-fight that is dearly straining the equipment and force structure of the army and marine corps. Indeed, in that sense, it is quite the same as the Northrop B-2 bomber, which proved so useful in the original 2003 invasion, but has played no part at all in combat operations ever since.

Calling it the F/A-22 for three years may have been a shrewd marketing gimmick by the air force brass, but it cannot overcome the reality that the Raptors being delivered today are not optimised for ground-attack missions. Planned upgrades will do much to correct this deficiency, but the first built-in multi-role capability probably will not arrive until at least the end of the decade.

On the contrary, USAF leaders may be right to be so visibly proud of the F-22A’s air-to-air skills. Indeed, these were the attributes used to justify the programme in the first place, and now seem validated after a sometimes frustrating, but ultimately successful series of flight tests and operational evaluations.

This is exactly what makes for the some­what awkward timing of the USAF’s celebration over the F-22A’s service entry. It gives the impres­sion that the USAF’s priorities and strategic focus are looking past the current conflict. Disclosing new details of a proposal now on the table that would slightly increase F-22A orders and extend the production line two years may reinforce that sense of the air force’s strategy.

Even the future of the Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter now appears safe, with Moseley assuring that fewer than the rumoured 500 fighters will be cut from the order and that all three variants will be retained. This is in bold contrast to the impact of the war on the modernisation plans of the USAF’s sister services. Most tellingly, the army’s plan to invest $160 billion over the next 25 years to develop and field a vision for a highly networked, mobile and lethal force – Boeing’s Future Combat Systems – is being drained of cash to help offset the costs of paying for fighting the insurgency of today.

At the same time, the army appears flush with cash to fund programmes of immediate impact on a battlefield like Iraq and Afghanistan, including the Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow Block III, Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk, Boeing CH-47F Chinook, Bell 407 Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter and General Atomics Warrior extended range multi-purpose unmanned air vehicle. Contracts are also pending for the Light Utility Helicopter and the Future Cargo Aircraft.

Those fighting insurgents on the ground today should be relieved to know that any one of these programmes has come to fruition. It is much more difficult to expect an army or marine “grunt” to feel any good about a plan to spend at least $20 billion more on the F-22A.

The situation also reminds us that, for the air force, the situation on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan makes a mockery of a vision of airpower that is concentrated on fighting and defeating a near-peer enemy equipped with the latest fighters and a sophisticated surface-to-air missile system.

The USAF may gamble that it can get away with ignoring this reality and plunging forward full-speed on its modernisation campaign. Time will soon tell if air power’s current irrelevance will come back to haunt this strategy.

Source: Flight International