WASHINGTON — Facing a competitive election battle in a new district, US Rep. Randy Forbes is leading a popular, if improbable, charge to restart production of Lockheed Martin's F-22 stealth fighter jet.
The longtime Virginia Republican recently spearheaded a proposal for this year's defense policy bill that would urge the Air Force to look into restarting the F-22 Raptor production line. Although Forbes does not sit on the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee, the chairman incorporated Forbes' language into the subcommittee's markup, released Tuesday.
Lockheed Martin terminated F-22 production in 2011 at the direction of then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates after building just 187 aircraft — far short of the original requirement for 749 jets. But in light of growing concern that the US military is losing its technological edge to adversaries like Russia and China, Forbes is calling on the Air Force to do a "comprehensive analysis" on what it will take to maintain air dominance in the future.
"Anytime you talk about air dominance you have to talk about the F-22 because it is the best combat platform in the world," Forbes told Defense News in an exclusive interview Thursday. "It just makes sense to look at the best platform in the world and to say, what would it cost to restart that production line?"
Forbes' push to revive the F-22 line comes as he faces a potentially tough election bid for the 2nd Congressional District — the same district that houses the 1st Fighter Wing. The 1st Fighter Wing, based at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, is responsible for fully a third of the Air Force's F-22 force.
Forbes has represented Virginia's 4th Congressional District since 2001, but changes this year to district boundaries have transformed the 4th from a solidly red district to a blue one. Earlier this year Forbes became the third Republican to announce his candidacy for the 2nd District slot, currently held by Republican Scott Rigell, who decided not to seek a fourth term and is backing Forbes' bid to replace him.
State Del. Scott Taylor and attorney Pat Cardwell, both from Virginia Beach, are also seeking the Republican nomination, according to reports.
This is the first time Forbes has advocated reviving F-22 production in a markup of the annual defense policy bill. He chairs the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee, which oversees Navy and Marine Corps shipbuilding, as well as the Air Force's long-range strike bomber. However, Forbes said he has been questioning the Pentagon's decision to terminate the F-22 line since the decision was made.
"If you go back and look at [then-Air Force Chief of Staff] Gen. [Norton] Schwartz's hearing, you will see me in there questioning this when they did it the first time," Forbes said. "I asked the exact same questions that I'm asking now. … That wasn't yesterday or today, that was back when it was actually done."
A revival of the F-22 production line faces long odds in a tight budget environment, with Air Force officials citing the enormous cost of such a project. A 2010 Rand study commissioned by the Air Force placed the price tag to buy just 75 more F-22s at $17 billion in 2008 dollars.
But no price is too high to pay to protect our men and women in combat, Forbes stressed.
"This isn't about numbers, this is about the individuals who may not come back because we are not giving them the kind of resources we need," Forbes said. "There are many of us on the Armed Services Committee that are just sick and tired of sending our men and women into combat when they are having to get parts out of museums to fly their planes, or when they are having half the training time that we know they need."
"I don't want them flying their grandfather's planes to fight our fight, so that's why we need to do what it takes to defend this country," Forbes emphasized.
Although the Air Force has no current plans to restart the F-22 line, the Pentagon plans to buy 2,443 combat F-35s, which will replace legacy fighter jets across the armed services. However, Forbes said the two fighter jets have very different missions: the F-22 is "unrivaled" when it comes to air-to-air combat, where the F-35 is primarily designed for the air-to-land fight.
"What we are looking at is what kind of mix do we need of F-22s and F-35s that we hope to be able to start getting as we begin to look at this study?" he said.
He noted that at the time of the decision to terminate the F-22 line, the Pentagon didn't have "a single study" recommending that the requirement be dropped to 187.
"Many of the people at the war college and other people would say that was probably the worst procurement decision that's been made by the Pentagon in the last 20 years," he said.