Export? Forget it


Designed to replace the F-15 as the mainstay air superiority fighter in the U.S. air force inventory, the F-22 has big expectations riding on its wings, the most important of which is to maintain air superiority until the middle of the 21st century, when the next model comes out.

On the question of whether the U.S. should sell the F-22 to allied states, such as Taiwan, Israel, Japan or South Korea, the answer is a resounding no. Supporters of the idea will highlight factors such as the financial incentive for the consortium of American manufacturers behind the plane from the numerous export deals, two-way technology transfer, and greater trust between governments.

However, there are more significant reasons not to export this airplane. For one, America is the only country, so far, to successfully field significant numbers of a Generation 5 fighter. The closest competitor is the Russo-Indian PAK-FA project, led by Sukhoi, but it is not scheduled to enter production until the middle of this decade. The second reason is that according to current public information, the F-22 is the most advanced operational fighter, out-performing its in-class adversaries across the board. The aircraft gives a technological edge to the U.S., for the medium term, not only because it is largely a finished product, but also because a significant number of planes are already operational — it will be 10 years before Generaton 5 fighters start to appear in appreciable numbers in rival air forces. Finally, America already has a more than sufficient range of export products to meet the needs of its clients — upgraded versions of the F-X aircraft, up to and including the F-18, are already capable of meeting the requirements of the modern battlefield.

An internal justification against developing an export version is purely technological — the relative immaturity of the platform against more established aircraft, such as the F-15 and F-16. A number of incidents and crashes in recent years have raised concerns about the reliability of key components, such as software errors and the failure of oxygen delivery systems. Thus, it is prudent to resolve these issues before considering an export version.

The restriction on the production of 187 aircraft, imposed for budgetary and economic reasons, along with the high maintenance cost per aircraft, means that Washington needs to come to grips with the production, maintenance, and cost of the F-22 on its own ground, before it becomes possible to even offer a comprehensive contract to potential export customers.

From the international perspective, selling F-22s to states in the unpredictable areas of the world, such as southeast Asia, the Middle East, or even Latin America, might cause an unnecessary rise in tensions that could break out in an arms race between the local powers. Countries benefit more from peace than war and as such, undermining stability is not a desirable outcome.

While the F-22 is an impressive machine, it is still a work in progress. The arguments against developing an export model revolve around a few factors — the technological immaturity of the plane, the preservation of America’s technological edge in military aviation, the availability of already capable export versions of the F-X family, and finally, an unpredictable world should not be further destabilized by such a capable platform.

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