The Air Force has been clear about its plans to retire the F-22 Raptor in the 2030s, seemingly drawing a parallel between it and another legendary air-to-air fighter that flew into the sunset sooner than many had hoped — the Navy’s F-14 Tomcat.
You may be asking yourself, how are older jets like the F-15 and F-16 still in service if the F-22 is aging out of relevance? It’s a fair question — and like the Tomcat in the early 2000s, the answer comes down to a simple matter of cost versus capacity.
Unlike the Raptor, which has been out of production for more than a decade, the F-15 and F-16 never really stopped rolling off the assembly line floor. America’s new F-15EX, for instance, benefits from a breadth of avionics upgrades that required the same sort of hardware changes that seem prohibitively expensive for the Raptor — but most of those upgrades were actually funded over time by foreign customers like Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Importantly, because these aircraft are widely operated and still in production, sustainment costs are lower, logistics are simpler, and parts are much easier to come by. The F/A-18 Super Hornet is also an older platform that remains in service, but it too is now expected to retire sometime in the 2030s.
Related: The F-15EX may be the baddest 4th-gen jet on the planet
The balance of cost versus capacity
The Air Force has to make some tough decisions about cost because it has very little leeway when it comes to requirements for capacity — or the number of jets needed to fill America’s defense obligations. The fact of the matter is, no matter how capable a single fighter may be, it can still only be in one place at a time — and that means ensuring the Air Force has enough fighters to meet its needs.
One Raptor may have a decent shot at downing three F-16s in a single sortie, but it can’t actually do the jobs of those three F-16s all at once. In other words, capability is sometimes just not as valuable as capacity. If you need 400 fighters to fulfill your mission requirements but can only afford 200 stealth jets, you may need to operate just 100 stealth jets and 300 cheaper 4th-generation fighters in order to get the job done.
This question of cost versus capacity isn’t a new one. In fact, it was presented as justification for the early dismissal of another dogfighting dynamo that was beloved by just about everyone (except by its maintainers and the DoD’s accountants) — the Grumman F-14 Tomcat.
Related: Why did the F-14 Tomcat retire decades before its peers?
The Raptor and the Tomcat
Entering service in 1974, the F-14 has been called the world’s first 4th generation fighter by some, and while that title is subject to debate, the F-14’s sheer combat potential coupled with its wild popularity following its appearance in 1986’s Top Gun could be seen as a parallel to today’s Raptor. While all of America’s fighters have fan clubs of their own, few are as widely beloved among aviation fans as the Tomcat or the Raptor.
In fact, the F-14’s $38 million price tag back in the early ’70s may seem like a bargain today, but when adjusted to 2022’s inflation, it comes out closer to $230 million per airframe — only a million more than the F-22’s per-unit price of $150 million per airframe when also adjusted to today’s inflation. And while the troublesome radar-absorbent coating and limit-pushing performance of the Raptor reportedly require between 40 and 43 hours of maintenance for every flight hour, the Tomcat reportedly needed as many as 50 hours of work or more for each hour in the sky, thanks to its complex variable geometry wings and… well, its limit-pushing performance.
Like the Tomcat, the Raptor was built to win a global conflict that never came and that would have justified its immense expense and maintenance requirements against a backdrop of looming nuclear annihilation. When these threats passed, the high costs of these fighters became harder to justify in political debate, resulting in the early retirement of both in comparison to their peers.
It’s entirely likely that, like the F-14, the F-22 will retire without ever seeing the war it was designed to fight. And like the Tomcat, some of the credit for deterring that terrible war rests squarely on the Raptor’s wings.
Con-Fussed? So the Air Force is going to upgrade / modify the 50 year old F-15 to the EX Version witch sounds like a bad-ass aircraft. Yet at the same time they are deniyeying history in on of America’s best proven fighter aircraft the F – 14! Um, am I missing something here. Maybe time to reproduce the F – 14 Tomcat with all the bells & whistles. Let the @¥%® batastages commy’ys fly. When they are out 100 + who cares. They won’t want a rock “n” roll welcome for what these bad-asses could bring to the table. The other flip side of this, think of how many wasted F- 35 Aircraft will not be built and the Pilots lives that they could save.
Dr. Hujjathullah M.H.B. Sahib says
Quite a decent write-up really; but I got lost figuring out the inflation-adjusted comparative costs of the Tomcat and the Raptor; the reckonings just don’t tally ! Anyway, if the costs of the F-15s and the F-16s are relatively affordable due to the cheaper economies of scale than the costs of the Tomcats and the Raptors are exorbitant chiefly due to the strategic politics of sales and can’t be purely attributed to cost vs. capacity. If the Soviets/Russians can part cheaply with their high capabilities MIG-31s to their allies even during Cold War years, why couldn’t the US do likewise with their Tomcats to their own allies too and with the Raptors in contemporary times also. Surely it has got more to do with strategic politics than merely to the cost/capacity and consequent logistics factors !
Danny van Delft says
Unlike the Raptor, the Tomcat did it’s job. And adopted another job when it got LGB’s and the LANTIRN pod, and did that job better than anyone else did. The Raptor has 0 a2a kills, and has been useless. The F-15C does the same job, for a fraction of the cost. The Raptor is getting retired because it’s unnecessary. The Tomcat got retired because Cheney had a grudge against Grumman and lined his pockets with Mcdonnell Douglas/ Boeing. Promising a Hornet that could do a similar job to the Tomcat, which it still can’t do.
The Tomcat is an icon, a legend. The Raptor is an expensive paperweight.
It is not that the Raptor has been useless.
Rather, the Raptor has been unchallenged.
That’s exactly what we paid for.
Johnathan Galt says
The CORRECT decision tree point was missed almost 30 years ago, following the Strike Fighter competition. Although the F-16XL “lost” the competition for the Strike Fighter (night / deep interdiction role), an ENORMOUS opportunity was squandered. Simply changing the wing of all future build F-16s to the XL configuration would have nearly doubled the capability of all subsequent F-16s for only about an additional $1-2 million per copy of up-front cost, while keeping support / operation costs (the lion’s share of the lifetime fighter cost) about the same. At half the cost of an F-15/F-22 to operate, we could have continued to build new F-16s for many years.
Why would that have mattered? We are now buying F-15EX birds to replace older F-15C/D models in support of the F-22 in a theoretical first-world engagement (USvsChina). The F-15s are being bought to act as “missile mules.” In that role, an F-15 can carry about 8 missiles. The XL could carry 16 and cost half as much to operate. Paired with F-22s acting as airborne command and control, the PAIRING (combined arms) would have been far more cost effective and thus worth keeping the F-22s.
The list goes on. The XL truly is NOT the right choice to “replace” the F-15E, but it was “just as good” in a host of other roles.
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