I’ll admit to getting pretty excited by the F-22 cancellation last year. It seemed to indicate that Robert Gates and the Obama administration were willing to get serious about costly and unnecessary weapons programs, and suggested a more clear focus on the wars that the United States was actually fighting. However, there was a lurking caveat; the F-22 cancellation only made sense if the F-35 was actually less expensive. I’ve argued before that the F-35 will be the last important manned fighter aircraft, but this doesn’t mean that manned fighter aircraft are already obsolete; there’s still a big gap between manned and unmanned system capabilities.
It is beginning now to look as if the F-35 will be competitive with the F-22, and not in a good way. To be sure, the F-35 can do things that the F-22 cannot; it’s VSTOL (vertical take off) and CATOBAR (carrier) variants would provide important capabilities even in the absence of the main CTOL buy. However, the Air Force still plans to buy over 1000 CTOL (conventional) F-35s, which is kind of a problem if it ends up costing exactly the same as the F-22, especially given that everyone believes the F-22 to be the more capable aircraft, and especially especially because the F-22 is already in service and has an actual price tag.
To be clear, it may be true that it would be a better world if the US purchased fewer than 1200 fifth generation fighter aircraft in the next 15 years. However, we don’t really live in that world; the choice appears to have been between the F-22 and the equally expensive but delayed and somewhat less capable F-35. In that narrow context (which excludes alternative options such as the purchase of upgraded F-15s and F-16s), the cancellation of the F-22 in favor of the F-35 may have been a mistake.