On the heels of much-publicized difficulties with the F-22 Raptor’s oxygen system, the Department of Defense (DOD) has awarded Lockheed Martin a $19 million contract to retrofit an automatic oxygen system on 40 of its own planes.
Since 2008, difficulties with oxygen systems on the F-22 have contributed to oxygen deprivation for pilots in 25 instances, and difficulties with oxygen flow was ruled to have contributed to the death of a pilot in November 2010. In recent weeks, the DOD restricted flights of F-22s to avoid further incidents, and some now speculate that the oxygen problems could carry over to Lockheed Martin’s other stealthy jet, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The defense contractor delivered the last of the planned 187 planes in early May.
The most expensive plane in history, the F-22 program has cost taxpayers $79 billion, with each plane totaling more than $420 million. The jets are also enormously expensive to operate ($49,000 per hour) with much criticism of the frequency of necessary maintenance (the plane has a record of being in the shop one day out of five). Unfortunately for taxpayers, the news is about to get much worse. The Government Accountability Office reported in April 2012 that the DOD intends spend $9.7 billion for upgrades “that the manufacturer and the military had never planned on needing.”
Despite the sky-high level of investment by the U.S. and the frequent combat missions flown by the Air Force over the past decade, the F-22 has never been used in combat. On May 3, 2012, Senate Armed Services Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.) asserted that the F-22 does not have a mission. McCain stated, “Facts are stubborn things… [The F-22] has not flown a single combat mission… I don’t think the F-22 will ever be seen in the combat it was designed to counter, because that threat is no longer in existence.” According to Sen. McCain, even if the oxygen system is fixed, the F-22 still constitutes a waste of $79 billion. When asked by 60 Minutes what the Air Force should do with the F-22, Sen. McCain responded that the F-22 should be used for fly-overs at air shows. Ouch.
The F-22 was designed to counter a next generation Soviet jet that was never created. It faces an uncertain role in U.S. defense strategy both in the present day and moving forward. The F-22 has also experienced recurrent problems with its oxygen system and enormous future costs. As a result, DOD budget analysts would be wise to reconsider their investment in the plane. The Air Force should rely on other proven combat aircraft that provide a cheaper alternative and still perform the mission capably.