Retired General Says F-22 Production Was Killed So That A New Bomber Could Live

Retired Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz has stated in his new memoir that F-22 production was idiotically axed after building less than half the required number so that the flying force could get then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to approve building a new stealth bomber. 

Air Force Magazine was first to report on the revelations from the General’s new book “Journey: Memoirs of an Air Force Chief of Staff,” which also includes much more detail about how exactly the fight for the F-22 was lost, as well as how the battle to re-launch a Next Generation Bomber program was eventually won.

Norton Schwartz became the first non-fighter pilot to lead the USAF since 1982., USAF

Behind the scenes, Schwartz’s predecessor General Mike Moseley “never gave up in his principled attempts to get those 381 F-22s” the book states. That push ended up getting Moseley fired along with his civilian counterpart, Air Force Secretary Mike Wynn. After the culling, the brass thought that the new bomber was simply too important and that the chances of winning both the F-22 and bomber arguments with Gates, who was staunchly averse to building high-priced weapons that couldn’t be used in Iraq or Afghanistan, was next to zero.

Schwartz, in an attempt to see if a reduced F-22 production number would be palatable to the Defense Secretary, executed an independent assessment that ended up stating 243 F-22s was the absolute minimum the force could get by with. But Gates balked at that number as well.

Lockheed Martin

After that final push, Schwartz and his colleagues gave up on the F-22 production fight as it had already “consumed enough oxygen.” The idea of going to the powers that be in Washington, DC behind Gates’s back to lobby for the jet was a non-starter for the General as he didn’t want to betray his boss, no matter how poor his decision making seemed to be regarding the Raptor issue. 

The need for the new bomber would now become a top procurement priority and having sacrificed something at the fiscal altar gave Schwartz and the USAF brass of the era some momentum for making a case for that bomber. But still, convincing the civilian leadership that a new stealth bomber was needed even during a time when a peer-state conflict was anything but the major military issue of the day was going to be a major undertaking. Gates had also terminated the prior bomber effort, known as Next Generation Bomber (NGB), for what Schwartz calls “rational reasons.” 

Air Force Magazine states:

The NGB “had grown too big” and was carrying too many missions and requirements. It was to have an air-to-air missile capability for self-defense, Schwartz revealed, describing that requirement as “not completely nonsensical” but unaffordable. The attitude was that “cost was no object” on the NGB, Schwartz claimed, and that didn’t meet with Gates’ worldview, “So he canceled it.”

In explaining the termination of the NGB to Congress and the press, Gates claimed that the B-2’s unit cost had swelled unreasonably and this is why it had been canceled in its day, but that was exactly backward. It was cutting the planned 132 B-2s to 20 that caused its unit cost to swell, because all of the research and development costs associated with it had to be amortized across a force less than a sixth as large as had been planned.

This is only partly true. Unit cost does not take into account sunk research and development costs first of all, and the B-2 unit cost itself had ballooned as well. Regardless, Schwartz—a helicopter and transport pilot by trade— saw the bomber as an “unquestioned requirement” that would be needed by future presidents “both for warfighting and deterrence purposes.” So they went about convincing Gates that the bomber could be had for an acceptable price and without the massive developmental risk associated with Next Generation Bomber. This included keeping requirements fixed and costs down by using existing subsystems and other components, as well as other offboard jamming and sensor aircraft that could work together with the bomber as a ‘system of systems.’

Air Force Magazine concludes by restating the general’s remarks:

Ultimately, Gates relented, apparently persuaded that “we as an Air Force could field such a system with discipline.” Schwartz said he and Donley are proud of having “succeeded in persuading Gates” the B-21 would be pursued with “discipline like he had not seen, and so it’s up to our successors to deliver on that promise. The Air Force has to, if it is going to bring this one home… Moreover, they promised the aircraft would rely heavily on offboard sensors, jammers, and other capabilities to keep the cost down, as part of a system of systems.

All this is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it slams home my position that I have stated for years that Gates is largely to blame for the F-22 production debacle, along with a whole slew of near-sighted decisions and calls—in particular, poor handicapping of near-peer adversaries technological abilities and intent. Discounting the quick rise of China’s stealth fighter programs is among the worst calls Gates made. 

Defense Secretary Robert Gates , DoD

Other developments in North Korea and Russia were also poorly foreseen and/or outright brushed aside during his term. He was very focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, which is understandable, but in doing so he seemed to totally set aside America’s greater defense needs in the process and seemed to believe that low-end adversaries would be the only threat to America for the decades to come. A highly controversial mindset at the time, and one which we are paying dearly for today. 

In other words, I would not want to be betting on Gates’s picks at a race track.

Air Force Magazine backs up this train of thought as well, stating:

Gates, in his own memoir, “Duty,” argued that the F-22 was useless in the Afghanistan and Iraq counterinsurgencies, was a Cold War relic, and that a Chinese stealth fighter wouldn’t be along until the 2020s, so nothing would be lost by killing it. In actual fact, the F-22 has been essential in the Syria campaign and China fielded its first operational stealth squadron in 2017. Every Air Combat Command chief since Gates tenure has warned that the F-22 force is far too small for the demands placed on it.

Beyond the F-22 production saga, we get some rare insights and affirmations as to the USAF’s bomber programs of the era and the birth of the B-21 Raider. The Next Generation Bomber initiative was and remains highly classified, and with this new commentary, the idea that it was truly a “and the kitchen sink” program is reinforced. It also underlines how the USAF’s move to arm its next bomber with air-to-air weapons for self-defense was a major objective back then. 

We have discussed this capability at length here at The War Zone, and the B-21 may be able to attain this capability far easier than its NGB predecessor as it is thought to use off-the-shelf mission systems—possibly those associated closely with the F-35—that already support this capability. The Air Force is hard at work quietly developing very long-range air-to-air missiles that the B-21 could carry into battle and without even needing the ability to target them themselves, instead, it could rely on network connectivity and teaming with stealthy fighter aircraft to do so. 

Norton’s comments also underline something we have been trying to make clear for a long time—the B-21 is part of a larger clandestine ecosystem of new penetrating air capabilities being developed to take on peer-state opponents and work in concert with the new bomber, as well as independently. This likely includes a strategic reconnaissance aircraft that has existed for some time, unofficially referred to as the RQ-180, which can penetrate enemy airspace and persist there at high altitudes to collect targeting data and electronic intelligence that the B-21 can use in real time for targeting and route planning. 

B-21 Raider, Northrop Grumman/The Drive

Tactical unmanned combat air vehicles that can be used as sensor and electronic attack platforms, and even as kinetic attack aircraft, are also likely part of this family of systems. These can augment and assist the B-21 on its mission to strike deep in the heart of enemy territory. A new stealthy cruise missile that will almost certainly have a conventional warhead option is also being developed under the LRSO program. So at this point think of the B-21 as the star performer on a dark stage, with many supporting agents working in the darkness so that it can execute a stellar performance. 

These elements seem to have been alluded to by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on more than one occasion, as well. Even the B-21’s eventual arrival at Edwards AFB in the not so distant future has been described to us as being part of a larger family of systems that will be tested there under a unified ‘program of programs’ umbrella. These associated systems are very likely to have been operating for some time in the darkness but could become more visible as the B-21 pushes its way toward initial operating capability in the mid 2020s.

Norton Schwatz at flying a C-130., USAF

Also, by building a family of systems that can enable the B-21, the bomber’s unit cost, which is an incredibly volatile topic that is further exacerbated by the B-2’s dismal fiscal history, can be kept relatively low. With its cadre of lower-density enablers being developed using black budget funds that won’t be officially related to the B-21 itself—at least budgetarily—a ‘cheaper’ B-21 can be built. Basically, it’s very possible that the USAF is not only decentralizing some of the bomber’s critical capabilities, they are also decentralizing its budget, and thus making it more survivable on the battlefield and on Capitol Hill. 

We are looking forward to reading General Schwartz’s entire memoir and finding out what other interesting tidbits of information are laced throughout its pages. We will report back with a full review when we do.

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler’s passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.