Analyzing Romney's F-22 Suggestion
Posted by Bill R. French
This past weekend, Governor Romney shed new light on the details of his plan to increase the Pentagon’s base budget to 4% of GDP. Rather, he shed new light on a detail. Speaking on a local Virginia television station on Saturday, he said:
“Rather than completing nine ships per year, I’d move that up to 15. I’d also add F-22s to our Air Force fleet.”
While Romney has been mentioning his shipbuilding proposal since his breakout foreign policy speech at the Citadel during the primaries, this is the first time he has suggested additional F-22 Raptors. While some suspicion has arisen over the proposal, there have been no thorough commentaries on the matter as of yet.
But there’s plenty of suspicion to be had.
From a political point of view, it’s likely that Romney’s mention of the F-22 is a response to the growing criticism his campaign has received from failing to put forward a plan for how it wants to spend its proposed increase in the defense budget. While this is not a national security election, fiscal issues have been prominent, leaving the campaign vulnerable if it fails to provide further details to justify its expensive plan for the Pentagon, which may carry a price tag in excess of $2 trillion.
My own speculation is that Romney’s F-22 blurb may evidence discussions within the campaign to this effect. The suggestion itself may be a topline take away that the candidate recalled on the spot from those conversations. If this is case, we can perhaps expect the Romney campaign to put forward more details on its defense plan as it works them out ex post facto.
A Bad Way to Spend Money Against the Chinese
But from a military and budgetary point of view, two things stand out. On the operational level, more F-22s would cohere with the campaign’s emphasis on high-end threats, especially a hawkish perception of China – the only threat perception that can possibly justify more Raptors. On a budgetary level, buying more of the high-cost, high-profile items would certainly be on the short list for anyone looking to justify increased defense spending. According to the Congressional Research Service, the F-22 has a total program cost of over $60 billion and an Average Unit Procurement Cost of $191.6 million as of 2007, just before the program was terminated in 2009 and the total buy was truncated at 195 aircraft.
Note, however, that Romney’s Raptors would almost certainly cost more, given the costs of restarting the F-22 assembly line and depending how economies of scale factor on the number of new units produced.
Yet, even putting cost aside, the operative question is: would buying more F-22s deliver the capabilities that the Air Force needs and would benefit from substantially? While there is no question that more F-22s would increase American airpower – a goal that buying more of any airplane accomplishes by definition – the answer to this quesetion is, "no." Importantly, the answer remains “no” especially if we for the sake of argument share the Romney campaigns hawkish perception of Chinese military power.
These worst case scenarios perceive Chinese military modernization and a notional Chinese “assassins mace” first strike against the United States in the Pacific as a major threat to American national security. Yet, even in these cases, maintaining a favorable balance of power vis-à-vis the People’s Liberation Army in the Western Pacific does not substantially benefit from additional short range fighters like the Raptor.
This theme runs through multiple analyses conducted by the RAND Corporation in recent years, cited bellow. These studies find the primary challenge is not the number of aircraft available to the USAF, but is instead assured access to bases within range of relevant areas during wartime, notably around Taiwan. (For context, note that a cross strait contingency often functions as a baseline for evaluating the US-Chinese military balance, for better or worse). Current US basing options in the region, of which there is only a small handful, are well within ranges of increasingly accurate PLA cruise missiles and large numbers of short and medium range ballistic missiles. These weapon systems as presently deployed have the capability to effectively shut down or severely disrupt US airbase operations in the theater. For example, a seminal RAND study found that merely 34 submunition warheads from PLA ballistic missiles could damage or destroy 75% of all US aircraft at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan.
Thus, the operational problem is getting aircraft to the desired airspace, not so much the total number of units in the inventory. On this basic level, the short-range F-22 which depends on close-in regional basing continues the US acute dependence on forward air basing, a liability that Chinese proliferation of cruise and ballistic missiles is intended to exploit. In this sense, buying more F-22s essentially invests more in the Achilles heel of the USAF.
What an Achilles Heel Looks Like from Guam
Importantly, there is one special case to America’s basing dilemma in the Western Pacific. In these studies, Anderson Air Force Base on Guam is assumed to remain comparatively safe from Chinese attack. Yet, this actually further underscores the inefficiency of more F-22s as a solution.
Guam is ~1800 miles from the Taiwan Strait. One exceptionally detailed RAND study on US “access challenges” found that taking into account the relevant factors, Guam could produce 115 Combat Air Patrols over the Taiwan Strait per day. On the other hand, the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) could generate at least 690 sorties per day, many more if needed. After crunching the numbers on simulated air-to-air combat, the author concludes that “U.S. air superiority over Taiwan may not be achievable.” This was not the first such RAND study to reach the same conclusion for more or less the same reasons.
Furthermore, to get to Taiwan and back, F-22s require multiple aerial refuelings. Should the PLAAF succeed in targeting the vulnerable refueling tankers, the F-22s -- or any other short range combat aircraft -- can be defeated indirectly, according to simulations.
While such arm-chair war gaming leaves much unaddressed, there are some interesting considerations worth teasing out. First, the RAND study on access challenges assumed all US fighter aircraft on Guam were in fact F-22s and the result was still a losing battle for the USAF over the Strait. Second, the capacity for fighter aircraft on Guam, according to the same study, is around 96 – less than half of the current F-22 inventory. Here, the implication is that it is not the number of F-22s that needs to be increased.
Instead, even if we’re assuming the worst, what needs to be addressed is methods of operation and capabilities less vulnerabe to Chinese cruise and ballistic missile forces -- one of the goals of the Pentagon's already underway Air-Sea Battle concept. For the time being, this should not include playing into the hands of Chinese strategists by further doubling down on short range tactical fighter aircraft beyond the massive planned buys of the F-35, of which nearly 2,500 are to be acquired.
If we are to think seriously about American military power vis-à-vis the PLA – something that will become increasingly important as a matter of course – our thinking must first recognize the realities PLA capabilities. Once we do that, there is an honest discussion to be had, but it most likely doesn’t include additional F-22s.