What the Raptor Cancellation Means for the Navy
With what some may consider the “premature” ending of the F-22 Raptor fighter (after 30 years in development!), formerly known as the advanced tactical fighter or ATF Program, there are bound to be repercussions affecting the other military services. While the Army seems well on its way to a leaner mean force, after one expensive programs cancellation after another (Crusader artillery system, Comanche stealth chopper,Future Combat System), the Navy with having less to do than all the services in this War on Terror, having lost only a giant destroyer program, might now bear greater scrutiny from budget cutters.
The Navy as currently configured should be a smörgåsbord for the waste cutter. Huge amphibious ships costing up to $3 billion each are bought despite the fact the Marines haven’t conducted a major beach assault since 1950, and are more commonly used to fight alongside the Army. Then there are the $2-$3 billion each nuclear submarines designed to fight a Soviet Fleet now rusting in harbor or rarely venturing to sea, plus giant missile destroyers whose primary purpose of late has been chasing pirates in speedboats for Navy SEALS to deal with. Yet, at the root if this obsession with the high tech and overkill is the large deck nuclear carrier.
If one considers the F-22 as the core of the Air Force’s future hopes and dreams, then for the Navy it’s version of the Raptor would be its giant fleet of aircraft carriers. The continued focus of the USN on large-deck mobile airbases is the principle reason it is struggling to come to terms with threats in littoral waters, and why it steadily shrinks in ship numbers. Since the Fall of the Iron Curtian in the 1990′s, future force structure goals have fallen from a 600 ship Navy, to 450, 375, and finally today’s plan to deploy 313 ships in the future. Some experts believe even this lackluster goal is “sheer fantasy“. At this rate, with dwindling shipbuilding budgets and rising ship prices, we will never again be able to increase fleet size, especially with a continued dependence on the brute force of conventional carriers.
Such a mindset was affecting the USAF for the past 30 years with the F-22 program. A single minded strategy that the superb dog-fighting skills was what was required for future conflicts has meant the thousands of F-15s, F-16s, A-10s, fighter bombers, plus essential tankers and cargo planes continue to soldier on in current conflicts against low tech enemies. In other words, the service has focused precious funds on building a tiny force of planes for some obscure future conflict, it was having to deal with a totally new kind of warfare with an antiquated force structure. While the F-22 can do many wonderful things, this must be viewed in the context of what was lost in order to field what Secretary Gates dubbed a “niche” capability.
With it becoming increasingly unlikely the Raptor would be available in the numbers required, the service was reluctantly forced to depend on the rising numbers of unmanned vehicles, the killer UCAVs now widely available and extremely capable. This is only logical since UCAVs are far cheaper than manned jets, and are easier to develop and deploy (considering the 7000 currently in use to the less than 200 new jets bought for the USAF in a decade!). Thanks to the new precision guided weapons, they are equally as capable in strike missions as the conventional planes. Being much smaller, they are naturally stealthy, and are able to loiter over a battlefield up to 10 times as longer than the F-22 Raptor.
In the context of the aircraft carrier, it is certain they can do many wonderful things. We know their 90 plane airwing is very effective against very-minor Third World powers like North Korea, Iraq, or even land-locked Afghanistan, but the question must be is this the appropriate use of such a very costly platform? The next justification might be China, but then you return to the F-22 and its “niche” ability which can be applied to the carrier as well. Also with almost every warship currently built to support the carriers, will there be anything left to defend the sealanes from mines, submarines, small attack craft, or for guarding our ports?
Yet, even a small aircraft carrier force, a silver bullet if you will, armed with precision bombers gives a nation an enormous capability. Further, such less costly assets wouldn’t drain essential funds from other naval functions, as we see currently ongoing in the British and American navies who are unable to stem their rapid decline in numbers or deal with even the simplest of nautical threats of piracy. The recent proposal to reduce carrier numbers down to 7 should be enacted without delay, to increase the operating forces and balance capabilities, but also as a recognition that all the Navy’s fighting strength is no longer centered on a handful of Big Decks.