The sad odyssey of the F-22: America's big broken toy

The F-22 has been okayed to fly again, after being grounded, cleared, grounded, then cleared once more—all within a year. And yet, the Air Force hasn't fixed the plane's life threatening flaw. It doesn't seem like it cares.

The F-22 Raptor program was birthed two decades ago, designed, according to its proud Air Force backers, as a decisive stealth, electronics-jamming, nimblest-of-nimble finger in the eye of the Soviet Union. It would guarantee Communist-free skies, being able to out-maneuver and outgun anything Moscow could scramble.

It was plagued from the start. A year after the USAF and Pentagon high-fived over the super billion dollar plan, the first and only F-22 crashed and exploded due to a computer guidance glitch. The program remained "essentially unaffected," the NYT reported back in 1992, and it continued—with nail-biting Pentagon urging:

Today, though, at least six other aircraft — the Russian MIG-29, SU-27 and SU-35, the French Mirage 2000 and Rafael and the European Consortium's Eurofighter — threaten to surpass the aging F-15, our current top-of-the-line air-to-air fighter.

These words came from Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters in a 1999 NYT op-ed. Note that none of those countries posed (or pose) a threat to the US. France is in NATO.

And since then? It's not just the oxygen supply problems of recent months. After formally entering service in 2005, the plane has proven to be a mechanical pain in the ass, all while making us exactly 0% safer against enemies that don't exist. It flies exercises, rather than fighting. In May, Wired's David Axe summed up the plane's material woes:

Last year, rust problems briefly grounded most of the F-22 force. A whole squadron of Raptors had to turn back from a planned flight from Virginia to Japan in 2007 when their navigational systems went haywire as the planes crossed the International Date Line. In 2006, an F-22 pilot was stuck in his plane on the ground for five hours because the canopy wouldn't open.

Does the Raptor's stealth supremacy lie in its ability to stay absolutely still? Are we battling a fleet of Russian tyrannosaurs?

But what about Libya, that consummate display of Western air power? The revolution that was won from the sky? The F-22 was sitting on the ground. American Drones and NATO jets did the shooting.

Mixed in to all of this, of course, is the aforementioned oxygen problem, which has caused hypoxia-like symptoms—pilots can't breathe. This might have already killed one pilot in a crash last year, and poses a threat to literally every single plane, every single time it's in the sky. The Pentagon's taken a wait and see approach with the F-22's oxygen defect—but what more needs to be seen? Repeated groundings have yielded no fix at all, and after each embarrassment, the Air Force simply says it'll take precautions and collect data, to no end.

So why keep the F-22? Politics and money. Surprise! Each time one of the clipped-wing superbaubles is constructed, it taps workers in 44 states across the country. That's 44 sets of legislators with a cruise missile pointed up their asses to keep those workers working, and to justify the Air Force's mission to defend the skies. From what? I do not know. But this isn't likely to change anytime soon—if ever. It's just the way things work. The weapons industry trumps any rationality of the country those weapons are labeled to defend. It's self-propagating, self-justifying, entirely an end in itself.

Simply, the F-22 doesn't need to be fixed, because "The Next Air War" F. Whitten Peters dreamt of isn't on the way. Former Defense Secretary Gates even admitted as much, calling the F-22 a "niche" plane. What needs to be killed, scared, or otherwise blown to hell from the sky can be done so with our sophisticated flock of UAVs—a killing mechanism unprecedented in the history of things destroying other things. They're our crown jewel, not F-22s lying fallow in Alaska and Virginia.

But if we're going to keep the stealth rave going, let's at least make sure it doesn't kill anyone. The Pentagon just gave Lockheed Martin $24 million, atop the billions they've already received, to find and fix the oxygen supply defect. So, once and for all, find the cause of the problem. We were originally supposed to build 600—thanks goodness we stopped at 160. So let's deal with the ones we have, and fix the damn thing.


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