What Happens to the Air Force’s Oldest F-22s if Congress OKs Their Retirement?  

If Congress agrees with the Air Force’s request to retire 32 Block 20 F-22s as part of its fiscal 2024 budget, the aircraft will be used as trainers a while longer, then stored for an undetermined period at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base’s Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) “Boneyard” in Arizona, Air Combat Command told Air & Space Forces Magazine.

Eventually, they’ll be scrapped by Air Force personnel and contractors experienced in stealth materials disposal.

“Specific plans for disposition are being developed,” an ACC spokesperson said.

“However, if Congress approves the divestment there are several possibilities for the retired aircraft, including long-term storage at the AMARG,” the spokesperson said. “Until that final divestment decision is made, Air Combat Command is bringing the aircraft to Joint Base Langley-Eustis [Va.] where they will continue executing the F-22 formal training mission.”

The service expects some of the aircraft will make their way to museums or possibly as “gate guards” mounted for display, but those decisions have yet to be made. The Air Force did not say whether it could use some of the aircraft as maintenance trainers, although it has used some wrecked aircraft for this purpose in the past.

The Air Force is storing its stealthy F-117 attack fighters in the hangars from which they originally operated at Tonopah Test Range, Nev., but ACC said the F-22s will not require storage in a climate-controlled facility and will be stored at AMARG “using preservation processes very similar to legacy aircraft.”

Those processes usually involve removing any explosive devices, such as ejection seat motors; running a preservative oil through fluid lines; closing off openings so animals and birds don’t nest in the aircraft; and covering the cockpit, intakes and exhaust with a spray-on latex preservative to diminish the effects of sun and heat.

The AMARG has previously explored the construction of climate-controlled facilities to store fifth-generation aircraft, both to preserve their stealth materials and add extra protection—Davis-Monthan, despite its fences and active fence line security, has experienced intrusions and theft of items from its sprawling open-air storage facilities.    

If the F-22s are scrapped, it would be the first time a significant number of stealth aircraft have gone through that process. The issue is sensitive as the Air Force has endured lawsuits from contractors and service personnel who were sickened when they were involved in or close to the burning of toxic stealth materials at USAF’s classified Groom Lake facilities and other locations.

The process for the F-22s will also set a precedent for the B-2 bomber when that aircraft retires circa 2030, and the rest of the F-22 fleet, also retiring around that year.   

The Air Force proposed retiring the training F-22s in its fiscal year 2024 budget request because they no longer accurately represent the frontline Block 35, which is the combat-coded and -configured version of the fighter. Rather, they are for training purposes only, and service officials have said they are so dissimilar from the frontline version that they produce “negative training,” meaning students have to unlearn bad habits acquired in the unimproved aircraft.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said it would cost upwards of $50 million per airplane to upgrade the Block 20s to Block 35 configuration, and much more to operate them and keep them common to the rest of the fleet before the F-22 retires. The Air Force has said that it will apply all of the savings reaped from retiring the aircraft to developing the F-22’s successor, the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) family of systems.

The divestitures are meant to “focus on the future fight” and NGAD, the Air Combat Command spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said ACC hasn’t decided yet what kind of storage category will be applied to the F-22s.  The AMARG has traditionally broken up the aircraft it stores into roughly four categories:

  • Type 1000: The aircraft will be stored but not cannibalized for parts, on the chance that they may someday be recalled to service. However, they are not periodically powered up to run their systems.
  • Type 2000: Yhe aircraft are sources for parts cannibalization, but not destroyed in the process, and potentially restorable to duty.
  • Type 3000: Aircraft in “temporary” storage, fully expected to return to flying status and run at least every 30 days. These aircraft may not even leave the runway apron. “Flyable storage,” a related category, calls for longer-term storage, with representative aircraft powered up and flown periodically, mostly to keep a small cadre of pilots proficient in their operation. The F-117 is in “flyable storage,” but some have been recalled to duty to act as stealthy adversaries in USAF wargames and test scenarios.  
  • Type 4000: Harvested for all usable parts, then scrapped for their valuable materials, such as titanium.

ACC said the F-22 program office requested funds in its Weapon System Sustainment accounts under “Centralized Asset Management” to “induct the F-22s into long-term storage at AMARG.” These funding requests are not included in USAF’s budget justification books, and ACC could not say how much funding has been requested for this purpose.

Plans are in place, the command said, to “train and equip AMARG personnel to successfully preserve and store” the retired F-22s.  

“Demilitarization” of the aircraft—removing hazardous materials, explosives, gases, etc.—“and disposal will be a joint effort between AMARG and authorized fifth-generation contractor disposal facilities with experience in handling aircraft hazardous materials,” the ACC spokesperson said.

Congress ordered the Air Force to keep the F-117 fleet in “flyable storage” in case they are ever needed in wartime. Other aircraft that have been placed in Type 2000 storage have been returned to service as target drones as many as 20 years after being retired.