Air Power Abandoned: Robert Gates, the F-22 Raptor and the Betrayal of America’s Air Force. Robert F. Dorr. Amazon.com, 2015.
“If you want the date of the final betrayal of all Americans who fly and fight, here it is: December 18, 2006. That Monday, Robert Gates took office as Secretary of Defense.” — Robert F. Dorr
Robert Door begins his examination of the decision to end the F-22 Raptor production line with the hyperbolic statement above. The decision to stop production of arguably the world’s greatest flying machine elicits impassioned opinions on both sides of the argument. Raptor supporters argue that the Air Force is significantly weaker than it should be because of the limited number of F-22s, while supporters of Secretary Gates’ decision argue the cancellation of the line allowed the investment of billions of dollars in equipment that saved countless lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But if you are looking for an unbiased accounting of Secretary Robert Gates’ decision to cap the Air Force’s fleet of F-22s, Air Power Abandoned is not for you. Throughout the book Mr. Dorr rails against Secretary Gates, blaming him for a host of ills that now befalls the US Air Force, primary among them the decision to halt production of the Raptor.
Before I attempt my own unbiased evaluation of Dorr’s arguments, I must first express my own bias. I was a member of the 1st Fighter Wing providing intelligence support to the F-22 at Langley Air Force Base for three years, and I was at Langley on the day the Raptor line was killed. Quite simply, I love this airplane. It is unquestionably the most lethal fighter ever designed, and it is likely to remain so until a 6th Generation fighter is operational, whenever that may be. That being said, I understand the competing budgetary requirements that led to Secretary Gates’ decision to close the F-22 line. I also believe the subject of Dorr’s book, the premature halting of the F-22 production line, is valuable in the discussion of the future role of the American air power, and thus is of interest to all air power observers.
…political and military leaders continued to spar over the final size of the F-22 fleet. Then, in 2009, Secretary Gates ended the debate, if not the conversation, by directing the closing of the F-22 line.
Central to Dorr’s premise is that the number of F-22s procured is insufficient to meet the national defense needs of the United States. He therefore spends significant time determining what the appropriate number of F-22 deliveries should have been and why that number of F-22s was eventually capped at 187. In 1991 the Air Force selected the Lockheed F-22 Raptor as the winner of the Advanced Tactical Fighter competition over the Northrup/McDonnell F-23, and planned for the production of 749 aircraft to replace the F-15C Eagle. In 1997 Congress halved the Raptor buy, limiting production to 339 aircraft, a number that was revised upward to 381 in 2003. Cost overruns and production delays made the F-22 a political target, however, and political and military leaders continued to spar over the final size of the F-22 fleet. Then, in 2009, Secretary Gates ended the debate, if not the conversation, by directing the closing of the F-22 line. Dorr argues passionately that this decision prevented the effective recapitalization of the Air Force fighter force, and ultimately threatens the ability of the US to fight and win air wars in the 21st Century.
Dorr relies on an impressive array of interviews with influential retired Air Force officers and civilian leaders, such as former Secretaries of the Air Force James Roche and Michael Donley, former Chiefs of Staff of the Air Force Generals T. Michael Moseley and Merrill McPeak, former Commanders of Air Combat Command, Generals John Michael Loh and John Corley, Lieutenant General David Deptula, and a host of others to bolster his point that F-22 production was halted prematurely. Noticeably absent from Mr. Dorr’s text, however, are interviews with influential members of Secretary Gates’ decision-making team, and little effort is made to explain the enormous budgetary, political, and military factors that influenced Gates’ decision.
“381 was still based on sound operational logic as the minimum number to have one full F-22 squadron in each AEF for air dominance.”
General Loh offers perhaps the most coherent and persuasive case that the Raptor line was cancelled prematurely. Loh’s argument is two-fold. First, halting the Raptor buy at just 187 aircraft limited the financial benefits from economies-of-scale that only develop when a large number of aircraft are produced. Loh contends the high developmental cost of the Raptor ($28 billion) required a production line of 600 or more aircraft to effectively amortize the research and development costs of the airplane. Second, he defends 381 as the absolute minimum number necessary to meet Air Force operational requirements, as this number provides an operational squadron (24 aircraft) of F-22s for each of the Air Force’s ten Air Expeditionary Forces (AEFs) in addition to an adequate number for training, testing, and attrition reserve . General Loh would actually have preferred 700 aircraft, to provide two operational Raptor squadrons for each AEF, but he nonetheless concluded: “381 was still based on sound operational logic as the minimum number to have one full F-22 squadron in each AEF for air dominance.” Dorr, agreeing with General Loh’s assessment, contends that killing Raptor production at fewer than 381 aircraft made neither economic nor military sense.
Not even 381 would survive the economic upheaval and budget machinations of 2008 and 2009, nor would the military and civilian leadership of the Air Force at the time. On June 5, 2008, Secretary Gates fired the Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff General “Buzz” Moseley. Officially these firings were attributed to the mishandling of two issues associated with nuclear weapons security, but Dorr believes their constant advocacy of the F-22 was the true cause of their dismissal. Again, he quotes General Loh, who states, “I believe Moseley was fired over pent-up resentment Gates had over Moseley’s F-22 overreach.”
Dorr portrays General Schwartz as a “yes man,” unwilling to fight with Secretary Gates.
When it became clear the Air Force would not get their full complement of requested Raptors, Air Force leaders looked to secure as many aircraft as was politically feasible. Dorr quotes Lieutenant General Deptula as saying General Moseley’s replacement as Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, agreed to cut the requirement for all test, training, and attrition aircraft and fight for 243 Raptors, which the Air Force acknowledged as a risk. Dorr portrays General Schwartz as a “yes man,” unwilling to fight with Secretary Gates, as well as a mobility aircraft pilot that did not want to break with his superiors to battle for more fighters.
On April 6, 2009, Secretary Gates curtailed or cancelled 30 Department of Defense programs in what became known as “Black Monday.” Among the programs on the chopping block was the F-22, whose production line was officially capped at 187 aircraft. Dorr believes Air Force leadership capitulated to Secretary Gates’ decision when Air Force Secretary Donley and General Schwartz wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post titled “Moving Beyond the F-22,” declaring that emerging Air Force capabilities would allow the smaller production line of F-22s without harming US national security. It is for this point that Dorr reserves his harshest criticism, claiming the op-ed included falsehoods and inaccuracies, and was based on assessments of Air Force capabilities that had not actually been conducted.
On the other hand, General John Corley, the Commander of Air Combat Command during this period from 2008 to 2009, emerges from Dorr’s text as a shining example of integrity under fire, risking his career for a fight he believed was essential to future Air Force combat capability. Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss vehemently disagreed with Secretary Gates’ F-22 decision, not surprising since Lockheed-Martin’s Raptor production facility was in Marietta, Georgia, and he sent a letter to General Corley asking for his assessment of the F-22 decision. General Schwartz, as General Corley’s boss, specifically asked Corley to remain silent and not answer the letter. Despite the risk of recrimination and potential dismissal, General Corley responded to the letter, saying Air Combat Command had an operational need for 381 aircraft, and he knew of no study or assessment concluding that 187 Raptors was sufficient. He concluded, “In my opinion, a fleet of 187 F-22s puts execution of our current national military strategy at high risk in the near to mid-term.” This hail mary from General Corley and Senator Chambliss failed to save the Raptor, though, and in December, 2011 the 187th and final F-22 rolled off the assembly line at Marietta.
Despite the importance of the subject matter and Dorr’s incredible access to senior Air Force and civilian leaders, his self-centered style and clear prejudice against Secretary Gates and the Air Force of today cast a shadow over the central premise of his book. Whether claiming “Gates also dismantled the Air Force” or that “our B-2s are useless and should be retired,” Dorr’s inability to provide a balanced and unbiased examination of the reasons for Secretary Gates’ decision and his constant denigration of the Air Force quickly sour the reader on the text. Dorr even shows off his personal resentment towards Secretary Gates for repeatedly denying the author’s interview requests: “Oh, and my request for an interview, the one that dates to 2006? In 2015 Gates’ office…told me he could not be made available.” Mr. Dorr leaves the reader with the question: “How many Americans wake up every morning, ice in the gut, realizing that this country is defenseless?” I for one take exception to Dorr’s hyperbole and believe that the country is anything but defenseless, and though I believe our Air Force would be more potent with additional F-22s, I do not believe that decision was the abandonment of American air power.
Secretary Gates made a decision, he ultimately believed would ensure more Americans came home alive from Iraq and Afghanistan.
With the recent focus on Russian and Chinese military expansionism, there has been a renewed focus on American air power and its ability to fight and win wars in an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) environment. More recently, the Raptor’s combat debut over Syria has reinvigorated the debate on whether the Air Force has enough operational Raptors, but it is difficult to find an air power proponent who will answer in the affirmative. In this light, it is easy to say the decision to halt production as short sighted. But Secretary Gates made a decision he ultimately believed would ensure more Americans came home alive from Iraq and Afghanistan. There is importance in an unbiased look at Secretary Gates’ decision and whether it helped or harmed American national security. Unfortunately, it is not to be found in Air Power Abandoned.
Tyson Wetzel is an Air Force officer and a graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School where he was also an instructor. Tyson has deployed multiple times in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and NOBLE EAGLE. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force.
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