With U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reporting that Russia is sending attack helicopters to Syria for President Bashar Assad’s regime, analysts are speculating on issues ranging from a proxy war with the former Soviet republic to the readiness of air defense systems and U.S. national security implications.

The news program “60 Minutes” recently interviewed two F-22 Raptor pilots who, without Air Force approval, announced they would no longer fly the Raptor due to unresolved problems in its oxygen system resulting in a number of cases of hypoxia. The Boeing F-22 is a “fifth generation,” multi-purpose combat platform and the most sophisticated and capable aircraft of its kind. As such, it’s complex and expensive, with a fly-away cost of $155,000,000 each; the total program amounting to over $66 billion, limiting the original procurement goal of 750 planes to 195, with 187 operational.

Conceived during the Cold War, the F-22 met resistance in the early 1990s due to its escalating expense and the deescalating tensions between Washington and Moscow. Then, in 2001, came the War on Terror. The focus changed to fighting an elusive enemy using asymmetric strategies and tactics irrelevant to the F-22. Now, as U.S. policy pivots from the quagmire in Afghanistan, simultaneously new and old challenges reemerge.

Three days after “60 Minutes” hatched the Raptor, the Russians marked the 67th anniversary of the end of World War II with a Victory Day celebration in Red Square. More than 20,000,000 Russian deaths during the Great Patriotic War and their contribution to victory over Nazi Germany certainly justify celebration. What happened in Moscow more recently, however, amounted to a bold announcement: “We’re back.”

The day after the celebration in Red Square, Vladimir Putin initiated his third term by backing out of the G-8 summit scheduled for Camp David on May 18 and 19, a meeting supposedly set so President Obama and Putin could test whether the “reset” policy between the White House and the Kremlin is on track. Putin’s dispatch of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev carries an important message: “I’ve got better things to do. You deal with my number two.” It’s a move meant to establish the parameters of a new relationship and put the United States in its place. That is, second place.

During his election campaign, Putin’s rhetoric reflected his animus toward Washington. Recent actions reinforce a growing disdain for a U.S. foreign policy built on apologies and undergirded by military uncertainties. These uncertainties issue from what are sure to be significant national security budget cuts. The cuts will come from the “peace dividend” resulting from self-proclaimed “victory” in the War on Terror, and from the pending $600 billion in cuts due if Congress can’t come to an agreement on the budget.

As regards the F-22, Russia’s Sukhoi T-50 fifth-generation stealth fighter seems headed for deployment and export. Iran is probably is on the list. Meanwhile, federal law prohibits the export of the Raptor, despite the fact that Japan and Australia have expressed their interest.

As long as the United States and Russia are constrained by nuclear deterrence, American and Russian pilots are unlikely to meet in combat, but it could be inevitable that U.S. and Russian planes will one day clash. Then it will be too late to learn that the cost of having the world’s second-best Air Force far exceeds the price of maintaining the world’s best Air Force.

Russia has been flexing its muscles in other areas as well. Washington and Moscow remain locked in a dispute over a U.S. missile shield for Europe. A top Russian general recently warned of a preemptive strike if the U.S. went ahead with deployment plans. Add that to the infamous “open-mic” faux pas when, in March, at the recent Seoul meeting between Obama and Medvedev, President Obama assured his counterpart of increased flexibility on missile defense after his reelection. Dmitri responded with a chummy, “I will tell Vladimir.”

Add to that Russian non-cooperation on Syria, where Moscow’s client Bashar al Assad continues his murderous crackdown on dissidents. Russian military support flows to the Syrian government despite United Nations efforts to broker a ceasefire. The Assad regime, which is tightly connected to Iran, continues to back Hezbollah’s threat to Israel and, by extension, peace in the Middle East.

Russia also persists in blocking efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Moscow has a “cash cow” in Iran, where S-300 surface-to-air missiles, if deployed, would make an Israeli strike too costly, meaning only U.S. stealth platforms could do the job. Putin and the Iranians are betting the Americans won’t.

Al Qaeda’s fanatical ideology will threaten the United States for years, if not decades. Nations like Russia and China, however, tender a greater challenge. Either can, through military superiority, dominate the world stage politically and economically. And they will if the United States fails to pivot from its West Asian quagmire to meet these emerging and very real challenges. It is time to rethink our assumptions about the end of the Cold War. More F-22s make sense.

 

— Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Valuesat Grove City College.