(NSI News Source Info) KADENA AIR BASE, Japan - February 22, 2009: When Lt. Col. Lance Pilch climbs into his F-22 fighter jet, he is confident that he's about to fly the most advanced, fastest and stealthiest thing in the air. He boasts that to even compare his fighter to the workhorses of the Air Force, the battleworn F-15s and F-16s, is unfair. Squadron commander Lt. Col. Lance Pilch speaks in front of a U.S. Air Force F-22A Raptor at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, southwestern Japan, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009. He boasts that to even compare his fighter to the workhorses of the Air Force, the battleworn F-15's and F-16's, is unfair. At $140 million a pop, the F-22 is the most expensive fighter ever built. And even before seeing combat, it might fall prey to President Barack Obama's pen. "People often forget, the F-16 and F-15 are 30-plus-year-old aircraft," he said, as several of the dull gray fighters in his 12-plane squadron buzzed overhead on their way to training over the Pacific. "You don't drive a 30-year-old car. You trade it in after six or seven years." But you don't necessarily buy a Ferrari. At $140 million a pop, the F-22 is the most expensive fighter ever built. And even before seeing combat, it might fall prey to President Barack Obama's pen. In one of the new president's first major decisions on U.S. defense spending, future funding for the radar-evading stealth fighter will soon be on the block, affecting nearly 100,000 jobs spread across virtually every state in the U.S. and impacting military planning for decades to come. Opponents say the more than $65 billion F-22 program is sucking money away from other, more immediate needs and might be better spent on a different plane altogether. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is under development, is seen by some as more versatile, more realistic and, more importantly, cheaper, at about $80 million per plane. Doubters in the Defense Department, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have been hesitant to build more than the 183 F-22s the U.S. is now committed to. That is a huge cut from the fleet of 750 originally planned in the late 1980s, when the plane was being developed as a counterbalance to advanced fighters produced or planned by the Soviet Union. "Spending more on outrageously overpriced weapons and unproven notions of hypothetical warfare will only make our massive problems worse," said Winslow Wheeler, of the Center for Defense Information. "Instead, we need to demand wholesale changes - first in the bloated girth of our defense budget, and second, but more importantly, in the thinking behind how it all goes together." Obama must decide by March 1 whether to spend $523 million on more of the planes. That would still fall far short of the total 381 F-22s the Air Force had until recently said it wanted to build. In a further compromise, the Air Force said this week that it was willing to go lower. For the moment, the F-22 is narrowly winning the battle on Capitol Hill. On Jan. 4, 44 senators, fearing the economic impact in their home states, urged Obama in a joint letter to continue production of the F-22. Before that, some 200 House members did the same. Lockheed Martin Corp., the prime contractor for the F-22, says that 95,000 jobs connected to the F-22 would be lost by 2011 if Obama does not extend funding. Proponents say that, economics aside, the F-22 represents what the U.S. needs to maintain air superiority in the future. The fighter can fly at supersonic speeds without using afterburners, meaning that it can reach and stay in a battlespace faster and longer without being easily detected. It is also easier to maneuver and provides much better visibility and electronic information systems to keep the pilot informed about targets, and able to pass that information on to others in battle. In tests against other fighters, it has proven to be virtually unbeatable, with the only "kills" marked as a result of clear pilot error. "The F-22 is extremely good at three things," squadron commander Pilch said. "No. 1, it's extremely good at defense, that's what it was built for. It can defend an island, or a region or a country very, very well, better than anything I know. No. 2, it's very good at offense. It can strike deep, fast and precisely, better than any other fighter in the inventory. Finally, it is great at situational awareness passing, just an overall awareness of the battlespace and making those around the F-22 better." "We are looking 10, 20, 30 years into the future at the capabilities other countries are trying to evolve," he said. None of this, however, has been tested in real combat. The F-22, which was not ready in the earlier days of the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts, has only been deployed on a short-term basis overseas three times - twice for training in southern Japan, and once to an airshow in England. The claims of its air superiority are characterized by some as "future-war-itis" - the desire by planners to be prepared to overwhelm any potential threat that may arise in the future, despite the high costs involved. No one denies, however, that the F-15 fleet is aging and will need to be phased out at some point. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will not be able to assume that role for many years to come. With pressure to retire more F-15s growing, Defense analyst Rebecca Grant said strategic necessity justifies keeping - and expanding - the F-22 fleet, despite the cost. "In the last two decades, the U.S. has used airstrikes to contain dictators, punish aggression, turn around international violations of sovereignty and stop regime-inflicted humanitarian disasters. No-fly zones squelched Iraqi military activity for a decade," she wrote in a research paper for the Lexington Institute earlier this month. "There's no reason to think the U.S. will depend less on airpower for conventional deterrence in the future."
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