At one time, the U.S, Air Force’s now-retired F-22 program was the most-expensive and most-advanced fighter in the world. It was eclipsed only the USAF’s fifth-generation system, the F-35. But even during its development, the United States Congress ensured the U.S. military couldn’t share the technology with anyone – even allies. Yet, American allies were the first to use the more advanced F-35 fighter in combat.
What’s the difference?
The $62 billion F-22 program would have certainly had some of the research and development costs alleviated had the sale of the fighter been approved for American allies, but the Obey Amendment to the 1998 Department of Defense Appropriations Act very specifically prevents the sale of the F-22 Raptor to any foreign government — and they were lining up to buy.
Developing the kind of technology that makes the F-22’s radar signature closer to that of a bumblebee would take billions of dollars and untold years to develop independently. Why would a country allied with the United States want to make that kind of military effort when they could just purchase the tech? Well, until they received the F-35, they simply couldn’t.
Israel wanted the F-22. Japan was very interested in obtaining some F-22s for its Self-Defense Forces. If Japan was able to buy, South Korea would have wanted parity, then Singapore, then Australia. Even China would have expressed an interest. Despite the passage of time, Japan’s neighbors are still worried about the rebirth of militarism in the island nation.
And now that China’s own air forces are developing advanced stealth fighters of their own, the need for stealth fighters in the hands of and skies of American allies is more important than ever. And this was true, even in the 1990s.
But Congressman Dave Obey wasn’t having any of it. The Congressman worried that the stealth technology on the F-22 (which still makes a smaller radar cross section than even the F-35) would end up in the hands of China or Russia if sold to allies – especially Israel. It seems Congress was worried the Israelis would leak U.S. tech to China the way American intelligence believes Israel aided China in the development of its J-10 fighter.
Since then, the House of Representatives has had a number of debates and discussions about whether or not they should repeal the law. The Department of Defense remains neutral on the subject but critics of the Obey Amendment argue that critical American industries would stand to benefit from parts and continued production of the F-22.
Parts of the plane are made in plants from Marietta, Ga. to Palmdale, Calif. and a few places in between. American manufacturing centers have had to sink the costs of research and development as well as advanced manufacturing techniques since the production of the fighter ended.
Ultimately, the F-22 program was ended because it was very costly and the need for an air-to-air fighter to counter Soviet fighters just wasn’t the U.S. military’s priority any longer. The U.S. military purchased 183 Raptors, well short of the proposed 381. But then China and Russia began producing next-generation fighters anyway, so the U.S. doubled down on the Joint Strike Fighter.
So, why can our allies, like Israel and Japan, get the world’s most-advanced multirole fighter? The F-35 was always intended to be an internationally developed fighter system. U.S. allies were always supposed to have access to it and help bear the costs of developing all that mighty tech — much of which was developed in the quest for the F-22.