Obama weighs into Raptor stealth superfighter fracas
Royal Navy will be cheering for the president
The White House has signalled that President Obama may veto plans by Washington politicians to maintain production of the F-22 Raptor stealth superfighter. The move has important implications for the British arms industry, and even for the future of the Royal Navy.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, backed by the president, decided in April that America should cease producing the Raptor once it has a fleet of 187. However, members of Congress have subsequently amended the Pentagon budget plans to keep manufacture of the expensive ultrafighter going past that point.
Now, though, staff at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) have issued a statement (pdf), saying that the administration "strongly objects" to the extra Raptor funding. The OMB goes on to say that "if the final bill presented to the President contains this provision, the President's senior advisors would recommend a veto".
Argument over the Raptor's future has raged in America and overseas for years. The plane is judged by most analysts to be the most advanced fighter plane flying, giving the US an unbeatable edge in air warfare. But it is extremely expensive and has relatively limited abilities in the field of delivering ground strikes, the main activity carried out by combat jets.
SecDef Gates, confirmed in post by Obama, wants to cut off Raptor production to save money. He would spend some of the cash on cheaper aircraft such as the F-35 "affordably stealthy" strike fighter and on unmanned drones. More money would also go on various initiatives to ease the lives of America's combat troops on the ground.
But ceasing Raptor production would mean lost jobs in the constituencies of various senators and congressmen. Some of them would prefer to keep the Raptor going as an economic-stimulus package - an opposing congressman has described this as "weaponised Keynesianism".
Then, almost all of the global aerospace industry hates and fears the F-35 as it seems likely to dominate the world combat jet market for many years, perhaps putting many of its competitors out of business. Delays to the F-35 will drive up its price and make it less attractive, so rival fighter companies like Boeing are deploying all their Washington clout against the cheaper stealth jet.
More cash for the Raptor is bad for the F-35, so they're in favour. Lockheed, builder of the F-35, isn't resisting them as hard as it normally would as it also makes the Raptor.
OK, we get that. But what's all this got to do with the Royal Navy?
Keeping the F-22 in production has implications beyond America, too. Japan would probably buy the superfighter if allowed to. Australia hasn't officially said it wants to, but there's vocal agitation in some quarters down under for a Raptor buy.
Export of the Raptor seems fairly unlikely - planes sold overseas would have to be stripped of much of their top-secret tech, which would be an expensive process - but it would at least be possible if production continues. Any such sales would almost certainly be at the expense of the F-35, which was intended from the outset to be sold around the world. Thus continued Raptor production is even worse news for the F-35 than it seems at first sight.
Britain also plans to buy the jumpjet version of the F-35, to fly from the Royal Navy's new carriers. Some tolerably affordable new jumpjets are more or less critical to the UK carrier programme's survival, which is necessary if the Royal Navy is to remain a serious global player. Unsurprisingly the RAF is trying to kill off the present force of Harrier jumpjets at the moment, imperilling the UK's F-35 purchase and so menacing the survival of the carrier programme.
The RAF's latest attempt to wipe out the Fleet Air Arm is significantly more likely to succeed, then, if Raptor production continues in the States. Similarly, the UK end of BAE Systems will see a brighter future for its Eurofighter in a world where the F-35 is delayed and driven up in price. BAE has some involvement in the F-35 too, as it happens, but the Eurofighter is far more profitable and important to the company.
A lot of people here in Blighty will be watching President Obama's campaign against the Raptor with interest. ®