Air Force Chief of Staff: Building more F-22s 'Not a Crazy Idea'

By Vivienne Machi
An F-22 Raptor

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III said May 26 that reopening the F-22 manufacturing line was within the realm of possibility, and that it may cost less than developing a sixth-generation fighter.

Congress recently asked the Air Force to look into resuming the canceled fighter program. Welsh, who will retire on July 1, said it wasn't a "wild idea."  

"Rather than thinking of a sixth-generation fighter, can you modify the F-22 and reopen the line, cheaper?" he asked. That might keep the number of fighters the Air Force must maintain up, he said at an Air Force Association breakfast in Arlington, Virginia.

The Lockheed Martin manufactured stealthy fighter jet was discontinued in 2009, when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates insisted the money required to build more would be better spent on other priorities.

Welsh said the Air Force is currently conducting a cost analysis to see what it would take to revive the Raptor. 

"Looking back at somebody raising the idea to build more is not a crazy idea," he said. "I think you've heard ... the secretary of the Air Force say that we think it's cost-prohibitive. We're going back right now and looking in detail at the number of what would it cost."

"The success of the F-22 — the airplane and the crews that fly it — is pretty exceptional," he told the audience. "I think it's proven that the airplane is exactly what everybody hoped it would be … it has been spectacularly successful and its potential is really, really, really remarkable." 

His remarks were in contrast to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who previously said he was against resuming production of the F-22, calling it "an inefficient way to proceed," and "not something the Air Force has recommended to me." He also said that the Pentagon is upgrading the 187 fighter jets it already has. 

Though the House Armed Services Committee has recently asked the Air Force to report on how much would be needed to bring the program back, Welsh said that the Air Force was conducting an analysis prior to the annual defense budget bill talks.

"We've been asked in the past … by Congress to look at this number," he said. "We've been doing this for a while." 

Welsh said he has not seen results from that cost analysis yet. A timeline of when the cost analysis will be complete was not immediately available. The Rand Corp. estimated in a 2010 report that it would cost over $500 million in 2008 dollars to restart production.

Welsh linked the renewed debate to bring back the F-22 to the need for more air power. "The good news is, a lot of people are understanding that we can't keep cutting the number of fighter squads we have," he said. "Fighter squads and bomber squads and [intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance] … that’s the meat and potatoes of our Air Force. They're not always the sexiest things people want to talk about … but they are the things we're using every day."

Manpower, he repeated frequently, was a huge issue for Air Force readiness moving forward. He estimated that the force would need between 40,000 and 60,000 more personnel in order to be at maximum end strength, continue to work on the F-35 and add the ISR, space, cyber and other capabilities that are being requested of it. Boosting those numbers probably will not happen, he conceded. 

"We have to be ready and capable to win the fight today … and 20, 30, 40 years from now," he said. "All the stuff we have today won't be enough to win the fight in 2030."

Where the Air Force fits into the military's joint scheme and where its priorities will be is a debate worth having, Welsh said. "We ought to be debating capabilities," he said. "But without air power, we will lose — that's just the way warfare is." 

Topics: Aviation, Manufacturing

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