The F-22 Raptor: back from the grave?
The Pentagon collected its final F-22 Raptor from Lockheed Martin Corp. four years ago. Amid the Cold War's end and shrinking defense budgets, the most advanced fighter jet ever built was deemed both unnecessary and unaffordable.
Now, Congress has ignited a flicker of hope for fans of the pricey airplane. A House subcommittee asked the U.S. Air Force to investigate what it would cost to put the tactical fighter back into production. By many accounts, no other fighter can match the F-22's range of capabilities — many of which remain classified — for speed, agility, stealth and battlefield sensor power.
With 183 in service, a reboot could mean, theoretically, the delivery of 194 additional planes that were planned before the program was canceled. But at roughly $67 billion, the F-22 was ferociously expensive even by military contracting standards. The per-hour cost to fly it is higher than that of most of the Pentagon's air fleet, including the newer, equally pricey F-35 Lightning II.
Measured against these near-insurmountable fiscal realities is newly aggressive behavior and military upgrades by China and Russia. This year, Russia deployed its most advanced striker, the Sukhoi Su-35, for combat operations in Syria and is working to sell versions to China, Pakistan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Venezuela, and Brazil. And China has begun marketing its advanced FC-31 tactical fighter, which analysts believe is based largely on data stolen in an April 2009 hack of Lockheed Martin systems related to the F-35 program.
In an August report, the aerospace consulting firm Teal Group called the 2009 decision to end the F-22 "an unexpected way of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory." The fighter is revered among some as the guarantor of American air supremacy for decades to come, if only there were enough. It's dismissed by others as a gold-plated hammer in search of a nail, namely a mission beyond projecting air dominance.
The F-22 finally saw combat in September 2014, nine years after its entry into service, against Islamic State forces in Syria. And contractors long ago secured major tooling needed to restart the line, just in case.
Nevertheless, any effort to revive it faces enormous obstacles, said Richard Aboulafia, a defense analyst with Teal Group. He's described the F-22 as a brilliant fighter without a mission, while the F-35 has a clear mission but troubles as an aircraft. "It's not impossibly far-fetched," he said of the F-22's resurrection. "It's just that there are very big hurdles."
One of the biggest is the F-35, which like the F-22 has stealth capabilities. Also made by Lockheed Martin, the multiservice plane with variants for the Navy, Air Force, and Marines has grown into the most expensive weapons program in Pentagon history — $379 billion for a planned fleet of 2,443. Through the fighter's remaining life span, about 50 years, it's expected to cost $1.12 trillion for operations and support, according to the most recent tally.
The F-35 joint strike fighter program has endured years of criticism for steep cost overruns and performance shortfalls, due in part to the task of making three versions of the plane. For example, the Navy's variant must be able to land on an aircraft carrier, while the Marines wants its F-35 to take off vertically. Each F-35 costs an average of about $106 million. If Congress decides to curtail the order, costs would surge. The F-22, meanwhile, was about $140 million per copy. (The tens of billions of dollars in development costs for each plane aren't included in these figures.)
The faster, higher-flying, more maneuverable F-22 is the superior fighter, while the F-35, as Aboulafia noted, has been tagged with software, speed, agility, and even hull strength problems. Last year, the F-35 was embarrassed by an internal Pentagon report that found an older F-16 outperformed the new jet in certain dogfighting scenarios.
While the F-22 has no equal in the sky, it seems unlikely it will ever beat the enemy that is government funding. For one, there is the key question about whether it would be available for sale to U.S. allies. The F-22s built for the current fleet were restricted from foreign sales owing to its advanced technologies. The F-35, on the other hand, has been sold to U.S. allies. Aboulafia said several F-35 customers abroad, such as Japan and Israel, would likely switch to the F-22 "in a heartbeat" if it became available.
Another big question is whether Lockheed would be asked to build copies of the F-22 now in service, or one with updated elements. Its software was considered dated more than a decade ago and would probably need a major revamp. And if some of the other platforms on the current F-22 are considered sufficiently "obsolete," how much would modifications add in terms of complexity?
In the end, it's likely to be a zero-sum game. For the F-22 to return, something else at the Pentagon would need to give. A 2010 Rand Corp. study on the F-22 shutdown calculated that restarting production for just 75 more jets would cost $17 billion, or about $227 million per copy. A revived F-22 program would almost certainly need to siphon funds from some of the military's most expensive programs: the F-35, or the new B-21 long-range bomber, which the Pentagon awarded to Northrop Grumman Corp. last fall. The B-21 has a development budget of $23.5 billion and the new bombers are expected to cost at least $564 million each.
Another strike against the F-22 is that, aside from the existing B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, it's the most expensive U.S. military plane to fly per hour, at $44,000. That's about $12,000 more than the F-35, according to Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who included the figures in a January letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter seeking more funds for the A-10 program, a ground-support attack jet built to destroy Soviet tanks and nicknamed the Warthog. McSally is a former Air Force A-10 pilot, and many of the planes are based in Arizona.
It's unclear when the F-22 inquiry report is due, but Lockheed Martin, for its part, is going along with the review. Spokesman John Losinger said the company is giving the Air Force "any information and data" needed, but declined further comment. Air Force officials have said in the past that they consider a renewed F-22 program to be too costly.
An Air Force spokeswoman, Ann Stefanek, said the future of the F-22 review, if any, would become clearer once Congress passes an overall defense budget. She added, however, that the Air Force is less focused on "generational leaps" and more on "rapid deployment and prototyping" to remain ahead of threats.