The Air Force plans to invest billions to keep its F-22 Raptor fleet relevant and lethal for the remainder of its operational life, then retire the jets circa 2030. Upgrades years in the making will soon reach operational squadrons, keeping the Raptor at the cutting edge as the Air Force prepares for the arrival of its successor, the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) family of systems.
But as the Air Force moves to retire its oldest 33 Raptors next fiscal year, Congress appears unready to buy into its vision. Giving up the Raptors, which average age about 16 years old today, making them the second-youngest fighters in the force after the F-35—is anathema to lawmakers skeptical of the Air Force’s ability to deliver replacements any time soon.
F-22 advocates are loathe to see USAF give up its unique combination of stealth, power, and payload capacity before the highly secretive and still-nascent NGAD technology is ready for prime time. The House version of the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act would block the Air Force from retiring those 33 F-22s and instead order the Air Force to upgrade them to match the most advanced operational configuration. The Senate, meanwhile, appears set to freeze any action that would diminish F-22 capacity until the service can demonstrate it won’t lose any combat capability. The final joint NDAA will almost surely direct the Air Force to change course on the Raptor.
“The F-22 was built for a different era. The threat has changed, and the fight has changed.”AFLCMC PEO for Fighters and Advanced Aircraft, Dale White
Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. stunned Air Force watchers a year ago when he outlined a “4+1” future fighter plan that included the F-35, F-15EX,F-16, and NGAD—but not the F-22. Despite being the unmatched air superiority machine of the past three decades, Air Force leaders explained, the F-22s advancing years, the limitations of its relatively small fleet size, changing threats, and the advent of new technology all pointed to setting a firm sunset for the fighter’s service life. There is only so much money, manpower, and real estate to support the air-dominance mission, and NGAD will need every bit of each to be successful.
Brig. Gen. Dale R. White, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft at AFMC, said that view still holds today. In an August 2022 interview, he said, “From a sustainment cost perspective, it’s unlikely we would have both” F-22 and NGAD once it is available.
“These things are costly to sustain and maintain,” he said. “The Chief has been pretty clear” that the 4+1 roadmap cannot sustain both.
The F-22 was built for a different era, White said. “The threat has changed, and the fight has changed,” he said. “The problems we have to solve with the pacing challenge of China are very different.”
Gen. Mark D. Kelly, head of Air Combat Command, said at AFA’s September 2021 Air, Space & Cyber Conference that U.S. fifth-generation fighters—F-22s and F-35s—need new, fifth-generation weapons to keep them out of reach of Chinese defenses.
“We take a lot of bang out of our low-observable force because we push them into ranges where everyone is observable,” he said. New, longer-range weapons will buy back some advantage to be able to see and shoot first, he said.
The Air Force remains committed to modernizing and upgrading the F-22 and will roll out improvements as long as it is operational, officials have said repeatedly. Yet planning for the jets’ retirement is essential because by 2030, the fleet will average more than 23 years old, a point at which sustainment will only grow more challenging.
Scarcely a month goes by without a new photo circulating in aviation circles of the F-22 testing some unexplained weapon, pod, coating, or camouflage. After a flurry of revelations surfaced on the internet earlier this year, the Air Force released in May an illustration showing the F-22 firing what appears to be the new AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile (JATM), while carrying conformal, apparently stealthy external fuel tanks and slender, chiseled pods that could contain a new electronic warfare and/or infrared search-and-track system (IRST). Former Lockheed F-22 program manager Ken Merchant said in 2017 that the F-22 lacked available “real estate” to accommodate an internal IRST, providing the basis for that conjecture.
The artwork “is simply an artist’s rendering of an F-22 with any number of future capabilities,” an ACC spokesperson said. “We need every combat platform to go farther, sense farther, and shoot farther.”
White said there are more changes to the F-22 than will meet the eye. Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom, then-deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, echoed the sentiment in an April interview with Air Force Magazine. “We’re modernizing the F-22 in many ways,” he said.
“It’s going to be our air superiority hedge for our nation for the next decade. … There is a lot of investment in that portfolio,” he stated.
The 33 F-22s the Air Force asked to retire in its 2023 budget request are older Block 20 models that have grown increasingly different from the new Block 30/35 configuration. Retiring those planes would free funds to help pay for new Raptor capabilities. Nahom said the difference between the Block 20s and the Block 30/35 “is getting greater and greater over time.”
Pilots must “relearn a lot of things” when they transition from type qualification to squadron duty, he said. “It’s not a quick top-off.”
A former F-22 pilot put it more bluntly: “Pilots are getting negative training” in the Block 20 jets, he said. “They’re having to unlearn bad habits.”
As Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee in May, the issue isn’t that the Block 20s “have no capability or that they have a defective design—[they’re] just not upgraded to the state that we need to meet the current threat.”
The cost to bring them up to that capability, Kendall said, is “about $2 billion to upgrade these aircraft; $50 million apiece, roughly.”
But given all the Air Force’s other competing needs, “it’s not a high-enough priority for us to do, relative to other investments,” he added.
White said the Air Force and Lockheed Martin are developing fresh cost estimates, but described the outcome as unlikely to change. The upgrades would come, he said, at “a tremendous cost.”
“When you say, ‘Bring it up to a certain level,’ you’re talking about bringing it up to the level the Raptor’s at today,” White explained. “And that costs X amount of dollars.” But then, “you also have to carry those 33 jets with the combat fleet forward as well.” In other words, the Air Force is calculating its savings not just on not funding the upgrade, but on not manning, maintaining, and upgrading those 33 aircraft over the next five to eight years. The biggest savings is in that ongoing cost.
If the Air Force keeps those aircraft, White will be hit with a continuous stream of cost increases: “I have 33 additional jets I have to do sensor enhancement on,” he said, “as well as low drag tanks and pylons” and other improvements.
Col. Brian Griffin, F-22 program manager, said that the operations and maintenance funding for the 33 F-22s was “taken out” of the budget for fiscal 2023 and future years. If the jets are restored, “that money … to operate them” must be put back, too.
Air Combat Command did consider that upgrade, but each time it has in the past it has ultimately chosen to pass.
The idea always lost out to a higher priority, said retired Gen. James “Mike” Holmes, a former ACC commander in June 2020. Decisions must be made about “the best place to spend your counter-air dollar,” and upgrading the older Raptors never quite made the cut, he said.
Holmes said ACC and Air Education and Training Command’s recent overhaul of fighter pilot training—dubbed “Reforge”—makes it possible to reduce the number of F-22 training aircraft needed by freeing up some of the operational aircraft used to train new Raptor pilots.
That could “create more capacity without spending more money,” he said.
The House version of the NDAA would ask the Air Force to upgrade the “mission systems, sensors and weapons employment capabilities” of the older airplanes rather than retire them.
A House staffer told reporters in a background briefing that the Air Force assured Congress “back in 2010” that the F-22 training jets could be added to the combat fleet in a contingency, “along with the 234 F-15Cs.”
But “now the Air Force is retiring all their F-15Cs, they’ve cut the buy in half for the F-15EX, NGAD has slid farther to the right … and now they want to reduce their F-22 capacity,” the staffer said. “We think there’s a significant risk in meeting future air-superiority requirements. And so we’re holding the Air Force accountable to their commitment to have the training-coded jets available.”
Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, now dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, noted that the full count of F-22s is never available for combat at any given time. While the total F-22 force numbers 186, one must account for both training jets and a wartime mission capable rate of 80 percent. That takes the number available for missions on any given day to only about 100 combat-capable F-22s.
Mission planes would calculate that during operations, one-third of those planes will be “in the fight,” one-third preparing to launch or enroute to the battle, and one-third “recovering, refueling, or re-arming,” Deptula said. “That results in 33 F-22s in a fight at any one time, using the entire current USAF F-22 inventory.”
Upgrading the 33 F-22s to full-combat capability would give the service “an additional squadron of its most capable fighter in the most expeditious time possible for a fraction of the cost of any alternative,” Deptula said.
He worries that the Air Force is already too small, and that reducing its inventory by 1,000 aircraft over the next five years as planned will make it 25 percent smaller by 2027—precisely the point at which experts anticipate China will be “capable of successfully assaulting Taiwan.”
To counter that scenario, the Air Force should move now to fill “a deficit of aircraft” with fifth-generation jets, both new F-35s and upgraded F-22s. But the Air Force can only do that “if additional funding is provided,” Deptula said. An unfunded congressional mandate to enhance those less-capable F-22s would compel the Air Force to carve those funds out of other “critical and necessary priorities,” he said, including NGAD.
The Air Force’s fiscal 2023-2027 budget justifications include an average $547.9 million per year to fund research and development for F-22 upgrades—a total of $2.8 billion. These development efforts include new external fuel tanks; an infrared search-and-track system; improved navigation and new GPS antennas; enhanced identification friend or foe (IFF); the SATURN radio; improved pilot interfaces; sensor improvements; and an open-systems architecture to allow rapid software updates. Most of these are “rapid prototyping/mid-tier acquisition” efforts, USAF said.
In contrast to the 4+1 plan, however, the budget documents state the F-22 will perform “homeland and cruise missile defense into the 2040s.”
The F-22 was built with an 8,000-hour service life said Kevin “Red” Smith, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for F-22. He said the fleet has “decades of life left.” In fact the Raptor, “with the highest number of [flying] hours, is not yet even halfway to 8,000,” he said. “Most other aircraft are much lower than that.”
The Raptors can serve well beyond 2030—that’s not a question, he said. “What’s most important is that we ensure that the airframe has the relevant capabilities for the fight ahead of us.”
Smith said the Air Force has explored the idea of a helmet-mounted weapon cuing system for the F-22, no such upgrade was ever funded. He declined to say where the IRST will be put on the F-22. Air Force and industry sources have said the system will not be akin to the F-35’s electro-optical targeting system, or EOTS, which is a faceted window beneath the chin of that aircraft.
Expanding the F-22’s weapons capacity has always been a challenge. Right angles, which are typical of external stores hanging off wings, sharply increase an aircraft’s radar cross-section. Lockheed proposed a larger, dedicated attack version of the F-22 called the FB-22 in the early 2000s, which would have had “external weapons bays,” in which non-stealthy weapons could be carried. The new stealthy-looking external fuel tanks and pods being carried by test F-22s in recent images seem to indicate Lockheed has solved the problem of staying stealthy with external stores.
In its justifications for the fiscal 2023 budget request, the Air Force identified the new fuel pods as the Low Drag Tank and Pylon system, calling them a “critical capability” to retaining air superiority by preserving the F-22’s “lethality and survivability.” The Air Force said the F-22 can fly at supersonic speed with the tanks, but that they can be jettisoned with “smart rack pneumatic technology.” The 600-gallon external tanks the F-22 has flown with to date are not stealthy, and when jettisoned, leave a connection point that compromises the jet’s stealth.
“The updated F-22 pylons, external tanks, and new pods are advanced technological designs providing increased performance, persistence, and range while maintaining lethality and survivability,” Smith said. The low-drag tanks also “facilitate supersonic flight with external tanks and extend the range of the F-22.”
The Air Force’s budget request notes it’s using a “rapid acquisition construct, leveraging commercial best practices such as agile and lean” to enhance the F-22. “This allows the F-22 Raptor enterprise to develop, test, and field software/hardware from multiple programs (product lines) using an annual delivery cadence for capabilities as they mature.”
The document added that “funds may be used to resolve emerging safety of flight and diminishing manufacturing sources.”
The JATM will restore the F-22’s ability to shoot well beyond the range of adversary aircraft. China’s stealthy J-20 Mighty Dragon carries an upgraded PL-15 missile, similar to the AMRAAM, F-22’s primary weapon today. The new PL-15 is believed to have greater range than AMRAAM. JATM, however, offers still more range; while details are classified, sources suggest its range will be at least double that of the AIM-120 AMRAAM-D. The Air Force says the AMRAAM’s range is “in excess of 160 kilometers,” or 86 nautical miles.
Lockheed officials seem unconvinced that the F-22 is nearing its end. “We’re not doing any ‘end-of-life’ planning on the F-22,” said O.J. Sanchez, vice president and general manager, Lockheed Martin Integrated Fighter Group, which includes the F-22. He thinks the Air Force would support that contention. “If we were going out in the next five to nine years, we would need to be doing end-of-life planning [now].”
Instead, Sanchez said, “there are elements …where we’re re-starting” new production for certain components, such as wing leading edges that wear out over time. “The Air Force is funding that … to keep the platform viable,” he said. “We need to be able to deliver critical parts.”
White said that “end-of-life planning … is really supposed to start at the beginning of a program,” and the Air Force already has a plan as to how it would phase out the Raptor. Griffin added that USAF has already planned how it will store retired Raptors in a climate-controlled and secure facility to preserve its stealth coatings.
As specified by White, the F-22’s capabilities keep it relevant against adversary fifth-generation aircraft, and that it will also test out new capabilities under development for NGAD, which the Air Force touts as a single sixth-generation family of fighter systems that will collectively deliver air superiority.
Lockheed’s Sanchez said, “We view the Raptor as a bridge” to NGAD—and White agreed.
“The length of that bridge is yet to be determined … we need it to be as far as we need it to be,” White added. “So we’re not taking any actions that would shorten that. … We want to give the Air Force the most runway to be able to transition into the next generation of technologies as they are ready.”
The future of the F-22 “is not yet written,” he said. “So we’re preparing for a longer life in order to provide the most options for the customer as they work through their own challenging environment.”