Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has slapped restrictions on the Air Force's prized F-22 fighter fleet amid safety concerns, but insiders say they aren't that confining.
Spurred by warnings after nearly a dozen cases of pilots losing consciousness mid-flight, Panetta has restricted the distances the advanced jets can fly and ordered a fleet-wide installation of an automatic backup oxygen system.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said Tuesday the defense secretary plans to remain personally engaged in Air Force efforts to remedy the plane's ailment.
Notably, however, Panetta stopped short of grounding the entire fleet of 188 F-22 Raptors. He also did not pull a squadron of F-22s that were recently deployed to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, near the Iranian border.
"In terms of the deployment in southwest Asia, we believe that we can safely continue that deployment given the geography of the region," Little said.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. John Kirby said Tuesday the flight-distance restriction is "situational," saying: "I don't believe there's a nautical-mile limit here, it's just about an appropriate level of proximity to [landing] strips."
Despite some chatter in defense circles that the F-22 fleet might be permanently doomed, several longtime military hardware analysts say the Raptor restrictions will likely be lifted soon and the issue will quickly be forgotten.
"The easiest fix is to automate the oxygen system. Once that's done, the problem should go away," says Loren Thompson, a Lexington Institute analyst and industry consultant. "The fleet would not have been put on restrictive status had there been a pressing danger overseas."
Several Air Force pilots took the extraordinary step to sit down with "60 Minutes" for an interview that aired earlier this month during which they raised major concerns about flying the F-22.
Given the public black eye that interview dealt to the Air Force and Pentagon, why did defense officials opt against simply grounding the entire fleet, which never has been used in combat due to its high cost and limited fleet size? Because keeping the planes flying will help fix the problem, Little said.
"The secretary believes that this is the prudent course right now. It allows us to continue to examine the aircraft closely and to try to figure out what happened," Little said. "There's a troubleshooting process that's going on right now. So the aircraft being in operation assists in that process."
Winslow Wheeler, a former congressional defense aide now with the Project On Government Oversight, says "the Air Force will shut down the F-22 permanently over its cold, dead body."
Wheeler says the steps implemented by Panetta amount to very little.
"The restrictions imposed by [Secretary] Panetta do nothing to protect the pilots and ground crew from the increased toxicity that the data show they are experiencing," Wheeler says. "Panetta's actions are essentially political moves to appear to be doing something in favor of the pilots while holding, above all else, the preservation of the F-22's increasingly transparent clothing."
So what is the Raptor's immediate fate?
"The most likely outcome is the Air Force will finish automating the oxygen system across the fleet, and gradually, the political system will forget about this," Thompson says.
There was evidence Wednesday that Thompson's prediction already was coming true.
In a letter to Panetta, Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member John McCain applauded the secretary's "swift action" to "help ensure the health and safety of airmen who operate the F-22 and the safety of F-22 flight operations."
In the letter, McCain—a longtime vocal critic of the F-22 program—turned his attention away from the woozy pilots and toward concerns that Panetta's moves might keep the Raptor from taking part in any critical missions.
"These measures are likely to have operational and training impacts, and potentially implications for national security," McCain wrote.
Service officials concluded a yearlong investigation into the incidents in April, which included one death, in which pilots reported difficulties breathing due to apparent problems with the onboard oxygen system. But the investigation failed to turn up anything definitive.
The entire 188-plane fleet was grounded for several months earlier this year. Air Force officials in April were satisfied enough with the oxygen system study, and cleared the entire fleet to resume flights.
"This is still a relatively rare event," Donley said then. "This is not common."
After countless design and testing, ailments delayed delivery of the F-22 to the Air Force and drove up its price tag, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2009 capped the fleet at 188 jets. The Government Accountability Office pegs the cost of each F-22 at nearly $415 million, while an industry source says the last Raptors to roll off the assembly line "cost about half that much."
Early estimates were around $140 million per jet.
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report via the DOTMIL blog. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
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