This week I went down to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to see the most advanced –- and expensive -– fighter jet ever built. It's called the F-22, and it's just completing its first week of operations. There are only 19 of them at Langley, although the Air Force has plans to field 180 eventually. Don't expect to see them in combat any time soon. This plane will do nothing to tip the scales in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
The F-22 has been in the works since 1986. The Berlin Wall was still standing, and the main threat facing the United States was the Soviet Union. The main mission of the Air Force was to penetrate Soviet air defenses and drop nuclear or conventional bombs.
The Air Force already had two stealth aircraft –- the F-117 fighter and the B-2 bomber –- that were supposed to be so difficult for Soviet radar to detect that they could get to their targets without being shot down. But Soviet air defenses were getting better, and the day was inevitably coming when stealth alone would not get American planes to their targets.
Neither the F-117 nor the B-2 is a high performance aircraft. If they were spotted by Soviet jet fighters, they would be sitting ducks. They would need another plane to clear the way. Enter the F-22 which for the first time ever combined stealth technology with supersonic speed and maneuverability. Think of a bird flying at one and half times the speed of sound, and you get some idea of how difficult it would be to shoot down an F-22.
But in the more than two decades it took to develop, test and build the F-22, the threat to the United States –- and the need for a high performance stealth aircraft -- changed dramatically. The Soviet Union disintegrated, and al Qaeda attacked America with hijacked airliners.
Plans to buy 720 F-22s now looked like a waste of money; some members of Congress even questioned why a plane like that was needed at all. The program was cut back again and again, until today, the Air Force will consider itself lucky if it ends up with 180 F-22s. Divide that relatively small number of aircraft into the overall cost of the program, and you end up with an airplane that costs $350 million a copy.
So what does a $350 million supersonic stealth aircraft have do with defeating an enemy that has no air force and whose deadliest weapon is the roadside bomb? Nothing, and that's not just my opinion. Here's what the Air Force chief of staff said recently about the F-22: "In the role that we're in now…does the F-22 bring something significantly different to this fight this afternoon? The answer is no."
So why is the United States spending so much money on a plane conceived during the Cold War? While the Soviet threat may have disappeared, Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles and jet fighters have not. They're still coming off the assembly line, only now they're being sold to other countries.
The U.S. Air Force is in no danger of coming off second best in a war against, say, Iran or North Korea. But it could lose aircraft and the pilots who fly them. It's the difference between air superiority –- the United States wins but suffers losses –- and air dominance –- the United States wins period. That's what the United States is buying at $350 million a copy.