Back in November 2008, just after the election that brought Barack Obama to the White House, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made what was arguably the worst decision of his long career, pulling his backing from the Air Force’s top-line fighter procurement, the F-22 Raptor. That summer, he had fired both the Air Force’s civilian secretary and its chief of staff, a move in which disagreement about the F-22 played a large role. At the peak of involvement in Iraq, Gates — reflecting the consensus of conventional wisdom at the time — believed a large fleet of air superiority fighters was no longer “relevant” to US strategy. He stayed on through much of Obama’s first term, helping to further define down defense requirements and see the F-22 to its grave.
The termination of the F-22 program at just 187 airplanes has compelled not only the Air Force, but the Navy, Marine Corps, and the majority of America’s useful allies, particularly in East Asia, to place all their tactical aircraft eggs in one basket, that of the F-35 Lightning. This had resulted in very serious consequences, indeed: despite both being “fifth generation” fighters, the two planes are fundamentally different. Demanding that the smaller F-35 play a much larger role in emerging concepts of air campaigning has introduced risks of many kinds: technological, programmatic, operational, and, increasingly, strategic.
The revolutionary element in both programs was to make “stealthy” — that is, difficult to detect by the radars in use by most potential adversaries — aircraft the basis of US and allied air fleets, not just an “enabler” of traditional fighter and strike aircraft, like the F-117, or a “pinprick” conventional capability, like the tiny fleet of B-2 bombers. Originally, the plan called for 750 F-22s and perhaps as many as 4,500 F-35s, if total allied complements were counted. It was also thought to be important to field these fleets rapidly, building the F-35, in particular, by means of “concurrent” development. In his 1996 report to Congress, then-Defense Secretary William Perry promised that, by 2010, the F-35 (then known as the Joint Strike Fighter) would begin to replace “all F-16” and other “fourth generation” tactical aircraft. By such means would the United States retain the deterrent value of the kind of “shock and awe” of the 1991 Desert Storm air campaign, and forestall a quick return to great-power, Cold-War-style military competition.