What if the U.S. Congress had never passed the Obey Amendment, and export of the F-22 Raptor had not been banned?
In 1997, the United States government determined that the Raptor, America’s most advanced air superiority fighter, could not be exported to any foreign government, even those of close allies. The unstated reason for this ban was suspicion that Israel would, if it gained access to the F-22, transfer technology associated with the aircraft to Russia or China. The United States cannot, as a political matter of course, single out Israel for a ban on the sale of advanced technology, and so the F-22 export ban covered all potential buyers.
On the upside, this left the United States as the sole operator of what is probably the world’s most effective air superiority aircraft. On the downside, it forced U.S. allies (not to mention Lockheed Martin) to rely heavily on the success of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, as well as legacy platforms.
Today, the F-22 might fly in the air forces of Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Australia. Japan only slowly gave up its aspirations for the aircraft; while the production line for the F-22 still operated, Japan seemed to hold out some hope that the United States would come to its senses. If Japan had acquired the Raptor, the United States almost certainly would have also sold it to Seoul, if only to avoid a serious diplomatic incident. Australia would likely have become interested as well, and Singapore has proven a reliable customer for the most advanced U.S. systems.
The Raptor is extremely expensive, of course, and has suffered from a variety of problems, but the F-35 program has experienced a litany of difficulties that seem to challenge the core rationale of the aircraft. And to be sure, the United States and its partners would have had to sort through thorny issues of technology transfer and joint production. Technology transfer is part of the appeal of the F-35, even for second order customers such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia. In the case of Japan in particular, the F-22 might have been a hard sell to the Japanese military-industrial complex without some significant tech transfer. Of course, the United States appears willing to engage in such transfer through export of the F-35, so it’s unclear what Japan will have trouble getting its hands on anyway.
What effect would the Raptor have had on regional stability? We can safely dismiss concerns that the Raptor would have produced some sort of arms race. China has embarked on the development of two different varieties of stealth fighter, as well as increasing its legacy capabilities. Japanese and South Korean F-22s are unlikely to have nudged the PLAAF’s dial at all. And at the very least, potential customers of the Raptor would likely have received their planes earlier than the anticipated arrival of the F-35. For the U.S., foreign orders might have kept the production line open long enough to hedge further against problems with the F-35.
We can overstate the impact of foreign-owned Raptors; Australia and Japan might still have taken an interest in the F-35B, as the F-22 could not conceivably have flown from the decks of their small carriers. And the prospective impact of Japanese Raptors on Chinese behavior is hard to assess. But without an export ban, the United States would likely benefit from several allies flying an aircraft clearly superior to anything the PLAAF can field. That’s no small thing.