In a major victory for the White House, the Senate today voted 58-40 to strike down $1.75 billion of funding for seven new F-22 Raptor warplanes. The jet had been a point of controversy for years – George W. Bush opposed continuing its production, as did Barack Obama, who was backed by a cadre of Republican lawmakers, including his opponent in the 2008 presidential race, Sen. John McCain.
But debate was kept alive by several members of congress, who worried about job losses in their home districts if the planes, which are built by Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, were cut from the budget. (Lockheed Martin Aeronautics has plants in California, Texas, and Georgia.) The Pentagon already has 183 F-22 planes in its arsenal.
"I'm grateful that the Senate just voted against an additional $1.75 billion to buy F-22 fighter jets that military experts and members of both parties say we do not need," Obama said after the vote, according to several news agencies.
The president had pushed especially hard for the jets, which he today called an "outdated and unnecessary defense project," to be eliminated from the budget. "I've never seen the White House lobby like they've lobbied on this issue," Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss told the BBC.
Bells and whistles
So what does a few hundred million bucks per plane buy you these days? Quite a lot, as it turns out. The F-22 Raptor is what's known as a fifth-generation warplane, as opposed to the fourth-generation jets manufactured from the 1980s through today. (By comparison, the F-14 Tomcat, piloted so expertly by Tom Cruise's "Maverick" in the film Top Gun, was a fourth-generation plane.)
A key component of fifth-generation jets is stealth capability – the F-22, for instance, is touted by Lockheed Martin as being virtually invisible to radar.The plane is powered by two F119-PW-100 turbofan engines, which allow the jet to cruise at speeds greater than Mach 1.5. With the afterburners on, the F-22 is considerably faster than that.
In addition, the plane, which was first tested in the early '90s, is equipped with a powerful avionics system. The pilot is effectively ensconced in what Lockheed Martin calls a "360 degree" electronic environment, allowing him or her to monitor and control the plane's computer systems with a flick of the thumb.
"The F-22 will fundamentally change how America fights; used as a deterrent, it will shorten wars and save lives," reads a brief on the plane posted on the Lockheed Martin site. "The F-22 is faster to the fight, more reliable, one-half the airlift needed and three times more lethal than the F-15," the aging fighter jet the Raptor is designed to replace.
Built for a different world
Several bases across the United States have operational Raptor units, including the 1st Fighter Wing, at Langley Air Force Base, in Virginia. But the F-22 has never been used in combat, leading several critics to deride the plane as a relic of a bygone era.
Specifically, critics worry that the plane, which was designed during the 1980s, when the threat of a major aerial war loomed large, has been outdated by the realities of 21st century warfare. The bulk of today's conflicts unwind on the ground, and often involve counter-insurgency tactics.
There is little use for thousands of high-powered stealth fighter in these situations, the argument goes – and the prospect of a full-out war between two major nations is relatively distant.
Related: A history of American fighter jets.
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