Last week, the Pentagon released its budget request for 2023, which—among a long list of other changes to the force—calls for the retirement of more than thirty Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors, widely believed to be the most capable air superiority fighter on the planet. Because the United States ended the F-22’s production run after just 186 aircraft were delivered, this cut represents nearly one-fifth of all Raptors in existence.
The F-22 is a purpose-built air superiority fighter designed specifically to be able to dominate the most advanced fighters fielded by America’s competitors. And despite being the oldest 5th-generation design on the planet, the F-22 Raptor’s unique combination of high performance, sensor range, and extreme low observability has made it the benchmark for air superiority fighters in the modern era.
While the F-22 retains the edge in air combat today, the Air Force is looking toward the future—and its air superiority fighter system in development under the banner of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program. According to the Air Force, retiring 33 of their oldest F-22s will free up about $1.8 billion over the next eight years that can be used to update the remaining 153 jets in the F-22 fleet to an even higher standard, without cutting into funds they believe are best set aside for NGAD.
The F-22 is the stealthiest fighter on the planet…
The F-22 is likely the stealthiest entrant in its class, with a radar cross-section (RCS) said to be five or even ten times smaller than its more advanced sibling, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (at .0015 square meters). Both American stealth fighters are thought to be head-and-shoulders above their foreign competitors on the low-observability spectrum, with the J-20 said to carry a likely RCS that’s about comparable to the 1980’s era F-117 Nighthawk (around .025 square meters) and Russia’s Su-57 much further toward the observable side of the spectrum with an RCS thought to be about .5 square meters.
In other words, from head-on, the F-22 appears to be about the size of a marble on radar screens, while the Su-57’s cross-section is almost as large as 13 standard iPads.
Of course, radar cross sections aren’t static things—the F-22, like all stealth fighters, is designed to minimize its radar return from head-on, so its radar return will grow depending on the angle from which it’s being observed. However, these factors are true across all stealth aircraft, not just the F-22, and it’s a safe bet that the Raptor can sneak past enemy radar better than just about any other fighter platform anywhere on the globe.
The advantage this degree of stealth can provide in combat can be seen clearly in a 2013 incident in which an American F-22 approached a pair of Iranian F-4 Phantoms harassing an American MQ-1 Predator drone. The F-22 pilot, Lt. Col. Kevin “Showtime” Sutterfield, was able to take his F-22 right up to one of the Iranian fighters entirely undetected, fly below the offending jet to inspect its weapons load, and then pull up alongside the Phantom to tell him, “you really oughta go home.”
The panicked Iranian pilot, along with his wingman, suddenly realizing they were in the presence of an aircraft full generations ahead of theirs in capability, both bugged out despite their numbers advantage.
…But it’s also incredibly expensive to operate
America’s stealth fighters represent the most advanced tactical aircraft operating in the world today, so it likely comes as no surprise that they’d be more expensive to fly than jets that rely on older technology. But even with this appreciation for cutting-edge tech, you might be surprised to learn just how much more expensive stealth can be.
The F-16 Fighting Falcon, the workhorse of the U.S. Air Force and arguably the most successful 4th-generation fighter on the planet, costs Uncle Sam around $8,278 dollars for each hour a single fighter is in the air when you consider everything from fuel to maintenance and labor between flights.
The F-35 gets a lot of guff for being such an expensive program, but the F-22 is actually a great deal more expensive to fly and maintain per aircraft (due in some part to the small number of F-22s in existence). According to Defense Department figures released in 2018, the Air Force’s fleet of F-35As each cost about $28,455 per hour to fly, while the F-22 Raptor rings in at $33,538 per hour. It’s worth noting that independent analysts have called both figures into question for being too low, but even at face value, the F-22 is awfully tough on the budget.
A great deal of this expense can be blamed on the aircraft’s fragile radar-absorbent coating. Stealth airframes are designed to deflect radar waves away, but that alone isn’t enough to defeat or significantly delay detection. As a result, stealth aircraft are covered in a special class of polymer-based materials that literally absorb a reported 80% of electromagnetic energy (radar waves) that come into contact with it. This material gives low-observable aircraft a huge boost in stealth, but it’s also very susceptible to damage caused by heat… the sort of heat fighters are regularly exposed to while flying at supersonic speeds. Repairing damaged radar-absorbent materials is a painstaking and expensive process, and the F-22 has proven particularly susceptible to this longstanding issue.
The Air Force only wants to retire its oldest F-22s
Originally, the U.S. Air Force had plans to purchase a whopping 750 F-22 Raptors from Lockheed Martin, and for a time, it even intended to buy another 150 FB-22s, a fighter-bomber based on the F-22 design. However, by 2006, the United States’ defense priorities had shifted away from deterring near-peers and toward the ongoing Global War on Terror. America’s combat operations had little need for air superiority fighters let alone stealth, so the F-22 was unceremoniously canceled after just 186 airframes were delivered, with a vast majority of its production infrastructure re-allocated toward Lockheed’s next stealth fighter, the air-to-ground oriented F-35.
But that often-touted figure of 186 F-22s is actually rather misleading. Fighter production is done in stages, called Blocks, with adjustments and improvements made between each block. Lockheed Martin delivered around 36 Block 20 F-22s to the Air Force first, which don’t carry all of the necessary systems for combat but are close enough to be useful for training. From there, Lockheed began production on Block 30 and Block 35 combat-coded F-22s that were actually meant for combat operations.
Some F-22s have been destroyed since (at least four), while others have aged out of service, bringing the total tally of available fighters even lower. In the past, some have proposed upgrading the Air Force’s Block 20 training Raptors into combat-ready aircraft, but the cost of doing so was seen as too high to make sense.
Now, the Air Force wants to retire these Block 20 F-22s, which were not capable of seeing combat anyway, to reallocate the money it would have used to maintain these fighters toward updating their existing combat-ready F-22 fleet. This will mean increasing the wear and tear on America’s combat-coded F-22s, as they’ll have to be used for training as well, and each hour these aircraft fly is—in a very real way—one hour closer to extinction.
The F-22 was originally designed to fly for 8,000 hours per airframe (though modernization efforts are said to have doubled that), but with so few F-22s left in existence, it seems the Raptor is clearly now living on borrowed time.
The F-22 may retire as the king of the skies, but the NGAD has its eye on the crown
It seems very likely that the F-22 Raptor may retire without ever firing a shot in anger at an enemy aircraft, which may sound like a failure when discussing high-dollar weapon systems, but could really be seen as an empirical victory. Advanced systems like the F-22 Raptor are intended to serve as deterrents for would-be competitors. Victory for the F-22, in that regard, wouldn’t be racking up kills in the skies over World War III, but rather, playing a role in preventing the outbreak of such a war to begin with.
Retiring the remainder of the F-22’s training fleet will undoubtedly expedite the Raptor’s departure from service, as the same number of flight hours are spread across fewer total airframes. But even as the sun sets on this legendary fighter, the future of America’s air superiority efforts remain bright.
The next fighter the Air Force will task with establishing dogfighting dominance, under development within the NGAD program, is expected to build upon the Raptor’s edge over its competition, yielding not one aircraft, but rather a system of them purpose-built to retain America’s air superiority crown. NGAD is expected to consist of an advanced piloted stealth fighter as well as a constellation of uncrewed drones, or unmanned combat aerial vehicles, that will use artificial intelligence to take their cues from the pilot. These drones will extend the aircraft’s sensor reach, offer increased and modular payloads, and even protect the piloted aircraft from attack.
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Feature image: U.S. Air Force photo by Kevin Robertson