Defense Spending

By Shooting Down Balloon, the Expensive, Useless F-22 Fighter Finally Won a Dogfight

After $67 billion and more than 20 years, the F-22 finally won a dogfight against an unarmed, nearly immobile opponent.


When it officially entered military service in 2005, the U.S. Air Force hailed the F-22 Raptor as an "exponential leap in warfighting capabilities."

American taxpayers ultimately paid $67 billion to buy 187 of the planes, which had been in development since 1986 "to project air dominance, rapidly and at great distances" with technical capabilities that "cannot be matched by any known or projected fighter aircraft."

On Saturday, the F-22 scored its first-ever victory against an airborne adversary when it shot down…a balloon.

There may not be a better metaphor for the costly grandiosity of the American military than the use of a multi-million-dollar fighter jet to dispatch an unarmed, unmaneuverable opponent. But the fact that the F-22 had never won a dogfight before its decisive victory over what may or may not have been a Chinese spy balloon is a nice illustration of why the United States has the world's most expensive military by a massive margin.

In short, it's because the Pentagon buys lots of expensive toys that have no use.

The F-22 never had a clear purpose. When some Republicans in Congress tried to cut funding for the newfangled fighter in 1999 (back when Republicans sometimes did that sort of thing), a Brookings Institution report noted that American air superiority was already assured. Older fighters had dominated the skies during Desert Storm and the Kosovo conflict, and no other country was even close to closing the gap.

"The Air Force's intention to replace virtually its entire stock of current fighters with next-generation airplanes costing more than twice as much reflects Cold War habits," wrote Michael E. O'Hanlon in the Brookings report. "Given the unlikelihood of other nations acquiring such advanced aircraft, and the fact that major advances in capabilities can be achieved by improving munitions and sensors on existing U.S. fighters, these planes are unnecessary in the numbers now proposed."

The next few decades bore out the logic behind that warning. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did not require air-to-air combat against advanced opponents. By 2004, a year before the F-22 officially entered combat service, the Pentagon scaled back its plans to purchase over 300 of them. Two years after that, the Government Accountability Office reported that the Air Force had not demonstrated "the need or value" of buying additional F-22. The same report somewhat hilariously notes that the fighter was designed "to combat threats from the Soviet Union," which of course had been gone for a decade and a half.

In 2008, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates bluntly stated that the F-22 had no place in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The purpose of the F-22 was to ensure the Joint force could reasonably ensure air superiority in these wars. Trying to make a connection between this and a terrorist plotting an attack from a remote cave in Afghanistan is irresponsible at best," wrote Maj. Mike Benetez, an Air Force combat pilot, in a 2016 post for War on the Rocks. He summed up the F-22 as being "based off 1980s requirements, built with 1990s technology, and designed to counter dated threats with dated techniques."

The Pentagon is always fighting the last war and American taxpayers were kept on the hook for the F-22 far longer than they should have been. Now, we're paying for its replacement—the much-maligned F-35 fighter—despite major advances in drone technology that are likely to make fighter jets even more obsolete in the coming decades than they've been for the past two.

But hey, maybe someday the F-35 will be called upon to protect the country from a serious threat. Like a kite or a hang glider.