Most interesting young Grasshopper…Raptor Sales to Foreigners?
Atlanta Journal Constitution | Dave Hirschman | March 15, 2006
It would take a rich, trusted buyer --- plus an act of Congress.
But Air Force officials are cautiously floating the idea of selling Marietta-built F-22A Raptor fighters to foreign allies, a move that would keep production lines at the Cobb County plant open longer than now planned.
Top Air Force officers have discussed such proposals at conferences, according to the Air Force Times newspaper, which characterized the idea as "gaining strength" among service leaders.
The list of potential customers is short --- Japan and maybe Israel --- and the obstacles are formidable.
Each F-22A costs about $130 million. And a 2000 law prohibits foreign sales of the high-tech fighters that U.S. taxpayers are spending more than $72 billion to develop and field. But defense analysts say there are compelling reasons to get F-22As into the hands of close allies --- particularly Japan.
"Japan has the cash," said Richard Aboulafia, aerospace analyst at the Teal Group. "And there are some pressing national interests that argue in favor of selling this airplane to Japan."
Aboulafia said selling Raptors to Japan would offset some of the costs to U.S. taxpayers and put the world's best warplanes in the hands of a trusted ally that is geographically close to powerful potential adversaries China, North Korea and Russia.
Japan reportedly requested technical information on the F-22A during a recent industry trade show in Singapore. And Britain has requested a Raptor display at the high-profile Farnborough Air Show in England this summer.
(Going to Farnborough as LM guest
)Foreign sales also could extend Lockheed Martin's production line in Cobb County and lower F-22A unit costs for the Air Force, Aboulafia said.
"The F-22 is great for Japan's needs," he said, "and the U.S. would get world-class air superiority over much of the Pacific."
There are many pitfalls in the details, however.
Powerful computers drive the Raptor's revolutionary avionics, and the software is a closely guarded secret. The plane's stealthy shape, radar-absorbing coatings and production methods are highly classified. U.S. regulators and lawmakers would have to be satisfied that such technology won't "migrate" to other countries.
Also, Japan has traditionally insisted on building major components of the U.S. planes it buys --- both military and commercial. U.S. and Lockheed officials would be reluctant to hand over the F-22A's many trade secrets. Technology a touchy issue
"There will be technology transfer issues, and U.S. regulators may not sign off on it," Aboulafia said. "The Asia-phobia lobby would see all kinds of dangers."
A future sale to Japan has a good chance of going forward, he said, but it won't be easy.
"If [the Air Force] fights this fight, they may win," Aboulafia said. "But it's going to be a fight."
Loren Thompson, defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, said Japan is the only realistic F-22A buyer.
The plane is probably too costly for Israel, he said, and "Israel doesn't have the greatest track record when it comes to technology security." Britain and other European allies are committed to buying similar but less capable F-35s or non-stealthy fighters made by their own consortiums.
"Japan has a big wallet," Thompson said, "and its neighbors are some of the biggest threats in the world. Japan is completely trustworthy, and it's in a location where the planes are needed."
Thompson said Japan is about to retire obsolete, American-built F-4 Phantom fighters, and it could buy a stripped-down, air-to-air version of the plane. The F-22A was designed as a pure fighter, but Lockheed has added ground-attack capabilities during its nearly 20-year development.
If Japan went ahead with an F-22A purchase, it would probably buy about 60 airplanes, Thompson said. That's enough for two active squadrons of 24 airplanes each as well as spares and a few planes for training.
At current production rates, a 60-plane sale would add about three years to the F-22A assembly line. About 2,200 workers build F-22As at Lockheed's 7,800-employee plant in Marietta. Without additional sales, F-22A production could end in 2012.
Thompson said extending F-22A production is important to the Air Force because the service has never relinquished its goal of obtaining about 300 Raptors, even though the Pentagon slashed planned purchases to just over 180 planes.
"The Air Force has already stretched production past [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld," he said. "They'll be back for more Raptors."
Keith Ashdown, policy director at Taxpayers for Common Sense and an F-22A opponent, said foreign sales undercut the rationale for building the plane touted as the ultimate fighter.
"It flies in the face of the argument that we built it to have sole air superiority," he said. "If our allies can use it to compete with us, our capabilities are no longer unique."
Ashdown said the prospect of foreign sales is attractive because it would allow U.S. taxpayers to recover some costs. But he doubts enough planes would be sold to meaningfully reduce unit costs, and many defense-related sales are traditionally made with loan guarantees that may never be repaid.
"I'm a pragmatist," Ashdown. "I worry we may be giving away the store." Some deals backfired
Previous military sales have drawn controversy. The Pentagon sold F-14 Tomcats to Iran in the 1970s, but the country's pro-Western government was soon toppled and the planes fell into the hands of a hostile regime. U.S. defense firms also sell front-line F-15, F-16s and F/A-18s throughout the Middle East, and sales in other regions have stoked arms race fears.
Winslow Wheeler, director of the Center for Defense Information's military reform project, said he regards talk of foreign F-22A sales as a marketing ploy.
"The F-22 is under increasing pressure in our own budget," he said. "The Air Force is desperate to push the F-22. Holding out the prospect of foreign sales is a gambit I've seen before. The sale and cost savings may never materialize."
Lockheed officials declined to comment on foreign F-22A sales and directed questions to the State Department.
To allow the sales, Congress would have to overturn a 2000 law that bars such exports. Defense analysts said efforts to change the law would likely begin after a buyer is found.
Air Force spokesman Doug Karas sees no such effort under way. "Right now there's a law that says we can't sell [F-22As] overseas," he said. "There's ... no official move to change the law, and I know of no plan to ask Congress to change the law."