It would cost a minimum of $7 billion to upgrade and operate the 32 Block 20 F-22s the Air Force is seeking to retire, money the service thinks is better applied to the Next Generation Air Dominance program. Beyond that, though, it would also take a decade to do and peel limited engineering resources away from the F-35 program, Lt. Gen. Richard G. Moore Jr., vice chief of staff for plans and programs, said March 6.
Speaking at a panel hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Moore also gave a rare status report on the highly classified AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile, saying a surge in future funding for the AIM-120 AMRAAM—which JATM Is supposed to replace—is only an indication that the Air Force is investing more in munitions overall, not a warning sign that JATM is in trouble.
Just to keep flying the Block 20 F-22s as they are costs the Air Force about $485 million a year, Moore said, for a price of $3.5 billion through the end of the decade. To upgrade those aircraft to Block 35 standards, though—as some in Congress have urged—would cost an additional $3.5 billion.
Such a move would be the wrong investment to make, Moore argued, given that the entire F-22 fleet will be retired in favor of NGAD around 2030. It would cost even more to keep those aircraft on par with the rest of the fleet, but Moore did not provide a specific price for that expense.
On top of price, there is a larger, practical challenge; the effort needed to upgrade the 32 airplanes “would take a decade to get started,” Moore said. “There’s a lot of engineering work that that would take.”
The engineering work is especially troublesome because Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the F-22 and F-35, has limited capacity, Moore said.
“Lockheed is not fully staffed for engineers,” Moore said. “So if we were to stand up an effort like this, it would be reasonable to expect they would have to pull some engineering talent off of F-35—probably that means Block 4—in order to get this accomplished. I don’t think that is a [worthwhile] trade to us.”
Moore did not mention it, but Lockheed is also almost certainly one of the companies vying to build the NGAD, which is already well along in prototyping and risk-reduction. That effort would further tax the company’s engineering corps.
Air Force budget documents show the service already plans to spend more than $9 billion upgrading its remaining F-22s through the end of the decade, equipping them with stealthy external fuel tanks to extend their range; new sensors in underwing pods; improvements to the jet’s stealthy attributes, plus communications, navigation and other upgrades.
The Air Force is also asking for more than $22 billion in its five-year defense plan for NGAD. Moore’s comments indicate the planned F-22 retirements account for about a third of NGAD funding in that time.
In March 29 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee’s tactical aviation panel, Moore said the Block 20s are not “competitive” with the latest Chinese J-20 stealth fighters. And while the aircraft could be used for training, Moore said they are so out of synch with the combat-coded Block 35s that pilots are receiving “negative” training from them, meaning they have to “unlearn” habits developed in the Block 20 before they can become proficient in the Block 35.
“They’re not combat representative,” Moore added during the Mitchell event. “They will never be a part of the combat force. They don’t have the most modern communications. They don’t shoot the most modern weapons. They don’t have the most modern electronic warfare capabilities. They will not become combat representative aircraft, and so we elected to maintain our position from [fiscal year] ‘23 that it’s time to move on from the Block 20.”
Moore also told lawmakers that if USAF is directed to keep flying the Block 20s as an unfunded mandate as it was last year, it will have to “work with” Congress to figure out how it could comply.
“In the event that we are again restricted from divesting those aircraft but … the money has not been appropriated to fly them, there’ll be a half a billion dollars of something that won’t get done,” Moore said. “Perhaps it’ll be NGAD. Perhaps it’ll be munitions. Perhaps we’ll stand down the F-22 fleet. But no matter what, there’ll be a half a billion dollars worth of something that doesn’t get done unless the restriction comes with an accompanying appropriation.”
The Air Force rarely discusses which budget offsets are used to pay to particular investments, but Moore made it clear that in this case, the savings from the F-22 retirements are meant to go to NGAD.
“In order to get into the early-to-mid ‘30s with a force that can win, we have to get to a sixth-gen fighter and that’s NGAD,” Moore said.
While the Air Force is looking to divest the F-22, one weapon slated for a funding surge is the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile funding, after appearing to wind down over several years. Moore was asked if that’s a sign the AIM-260 JATM, which is to succeed the AMRAAM, is having problems, or whether the Air Force simply seeks greater stockpiles.
“We don’t see a delay in JATM,” Moore said. “And we want to get to JATM as quickly as we possibly can.” He said the budget also includes “along with some AMRAAM investment, some facilitization money that will help us get to JATM faster. Once we can start procuring it, we’ll get to quantity as fast as we can,” he added.
Moore added that munitions production has been one of the top questions from members of Congress in this season of budget hearings, given the experience of Ukraine and the heavy drawdowns of U.S. weapons provided in aid to Kyiv.
Lawmakers want to know the Pentagon’s plans to respond to those pressures, and Moore said his reply is that the services are investing in “any munitions line that’s hot and is producing weapons right now.”
That’s not just AMRAAM, he said, “it’s any place where we can buy munitions. Because the reality is, when we tried to surge to go into Ukraine, the surge capacity wasn’t there. And industry is ramping up as quickly as they possibly can.”