Just days before defense contracting giant Lockheed Martin officially delivered the final stealth F-22 fighter to the U.S. Air Force, Sen. John McCain told ABC News that the jets, which the Air Force call the future of American air dominance, are a waste of their $79 billion price tag and serve no role in today's combat environment.
"There is no purpose, no mission in Afghanistan or Iraq, unless you believe that al Qaeda is going to have a fleet of aircraft," McCain (R-Ariz.), a former combat pilot himself, told ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross.
Though the last F-22 Raptor was handed over just Wednesday, the Air Force's fleet of next-generation stealth fighters has been classified combat-ready since late 2005. But in almost seven years not a single one of the jets, which cost an estimated $420 million-plus each, has ever been used in combat, despite wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S.-led no-fly mission over Libya last March.
In each case, the Air Force said highly advanced planes just weren't necessary -- a theme McCain sees recurring repeatedly in the F-22's future.
"Facts are stubborn things," McCain said. "[The F-22] has not flown a single combat mission... I don't think the F-22 will ever be seen in the combat it was designed to counter, because that threat is no longer in existence."
The planes have also been plagued by a rare but potentially deadly oxygen problem that got so bad that the Air Force grounded the entire fleet last year for nearly five months while it investigated. The problem was never solved and the oxygen issues continue, the Air Force has said.
The Air Force and Lockheed Martin both refused one-on-one interviews with ABC News for an investigation into the pricey and potentially dangerous stealth fighter, but both have previously said that the F-22s -- the world's only operational fleet of next-generation fighters -- have not yet been used in combat because they were designed to counter rival, sophisticated air forces and air defenses, not insurgent groups on the ground with small arms.
McCain said the jet was born of a Cold War mentality and as the Soviet Union dissolved, so did the need for the planes. The government and Lockheed Martin plugged on anyway.
The fighters were first envisioned in the 1980s and the Air Force originally planned to buy hundreds of them, but in 2009 critics from across the political spectrum -- from McCain to President Obama to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- came together to pressure Congress to cut off funding at just the 187 that had already been ordered. In Gates' words at the time, the planes served a very specific "niche" need when it came to countering other high-tech fighters, but "didn't make much sense" anywhere else.
Ahead of the decision to cancel further F-22 production, dozens of supporters of the program in Congress and in local governments wrote letters to President Obama arguing that the full force of F-22s -- more than 600 planes -- would be needed to meet the future challenge of next-generation aircraft from other nations with large, advanced militaries like China and Russia. But according to recent reports, those countries combined have a handful of prototypes, nowhere near the numbers of the F-22.
Lockheed Official: 'Best Weapon Is the One That's Never Used'
Jeff Babione, the vice president of Lockheed Martin's F-22 program, told ABC News last year there was another place the F-22 could find a mission: quick strike attacks in hard-to-penetrate places like North Korea or Iran.
Just last week it was revealed that multiple F-22s had been deployed to an allied base in the United Arab Emirates just a short hop over the Persian Gulf from mainland Iran, but the Air Force insisted it was a regularly scheduled deployment and was not meant to be a threat to Iran.
Babione also said that he hoped the planes would never need to go to war and believes they are so advanced, they could function as a deterrent to potential foes without ever leaving the tarmac.
"The best weapon is the one that's never used," Babione said.
At the F-22 delivery ceremony in Georgia Wednesday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said the F-22 will play a "starring role" in the U.S. military's future for its "ability to reach out and strike any target on Earth, along with other unique air power effects, imparts a sense of vulnerability to potential adversaries and would-be aggressors."
Regardless of how the planes are eventually used, government spending on them is far from over. The Air Force says the planes, which currently conduct training and homeland security missions, cost $49,000 an hour to operate and a recent report from the Government Accountability Office says that the Pentagon plans to spend another $9.7 billion on upgrades to the planes that the manufacturer and the military had never planned on needing.
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