Main Image Credit An F-22A Raptor from the 27th Fighter Squadron 'Fighting Eagles' located at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, US, photographed in 2006. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Combat Archer
The first public shots have been fired in a new US Air Force effort to justify increased funding for the shadowy Next Generation Air Dominance programme, and its commander appears willing to part with its premier fighter fleet much earlier than anticipated in order to secure this.
The Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, General CQ Brown recently outlined his vision for the future of the US Air Force tactical fighter fleets, and it does not include the F-22 Raptor 5th generation stealth fighter. For many this has come as a profound shock. The F-22 is without question the most lethal and survivable fighter aircraft in operational service anywhere in the world and remains unlikely to be challenged in raw capability terms by any of the latest generation of combat aircraft under development by Russia and China. Furthermore, it is the second youngest of the US Air Force’s fighter fleets, with production having been undertaken from 1996 and 2011. The airframe was designed for a fatigue life of 8000 flight hours and the average fatigue rate of the F-22 fleet is currently around 1800 hours, meaning that the jets themselves should have far more potential service life left in them than the much older F-16 and F-15 fleets.
On the other hand, the F-22 has been a problematic asset for the US Air Force for several reasons. The airframe, stealth coatings and avionics were all pushing the boundaries of technology when they were designed and have meant that the F-22 is extremely expensive to operate and difficult to maintain compared to other fighters. Furthermore, outdated electronic components and a software and communications architecture designed from the outset to only interface with other F-22s have combined to make the Raptor expensive and complex to upgrade with new weapons and connectivity with other assets such as the F-35. The F-22 is also relatively short ranged compared to other fighters in its size and weight class such as the older F-15 family, due to its extremely powerful engines and the fact that capacity for internal fuel was sacrificed for internal weapons bays to enable the fighter to carry its armament without compromising its key very low-observable (stealth) attributes. The ability to detect and engage enemy aircraft with little risk of being detected, or at least tracked and engaged in return, which make the F-22 such a superlative fighter aircraft also prevent it from extending its combat range with external fuel tanks as all traditional fighters regularly do. F-22s based in Alaska and at Guam do regularly fly with external fuel tanks fitted in peacetime, but even jettisoning them in flight does not restore the full stealth characteristics, so in combat this would be a major disadvantage. However, for a US Air Force increasingly focused on the challenge of deterring and potentially fighting China in the Indo-Pacific, this lack of internal range and consequent dependence on vulnerable and easily tracked aerial refuelling tanker orbits is a major weakness.
Perhaps most problematic of all for the US Air Force is the fact that F-22 production was repeatedly cut and then finally terminated after only 187 production aircraft in 2011. This leaves a combat coded fleet of around 120, which is an extremely small and niche fleet by US standards, reducing economies of scale and making continued investments harder to justify despite its unmatched combat capabilities. The small fleet and closed production line also make every aircraft lost over time a serious blow to its long-term viability. The lack of losses in combat to date has not prevented losses through accidents or natural disasters such as Hurricane Michael, which damaged 17 Raptors at Tyndall Air Force Base in 2018. The potential fragility of the F-22 force in any future high intensity conflict is likely very clear to planners, since even the most lethal and survivable fighter is still vulnerable on the ground or if deprived of aerial refuelling tanker support while out of range of friendly runways.
The factors outlined above are likely to constitute at least some of the factors which contributed to General Brown’s stated roadmap ambition for a future US Air Force fighter fleet which no longer relies on the F-22. However, there are several other important factors which are likely to influence ongoing debates in the Pentagon. The first is the maturity and capability of the upcoming Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) programme, which General Brown listed as one of the four fighter types making up his ideal future force. Despite a comment by the then Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper in September 2020 that ‘We’ve already built and flown a full-scale [NGAD] flight demonstrator in the real world, and we broke records in doing it’, almost nothing is publicly known about the current status or design of the F-22’s designated replacement. The fact that General Brown referenced NGAD as a fighter hints at a piloted core air vehicle. However, the likelihood remains that NGAD will comprise a system of systems, including unmanned combat aerial vehicles and advanced munition elements which cooperate with the core piloted fighter to deliver next generation air dominance effects.
A piloted aircraft with advanced broadband stealth features, fighter-type performance and next generation datalink and sensor technologies is unlikely to be cheap despite the use of modern digital design and testing tools. Furthermore, since stealth aircraft must carry all fuel and weapons internally, an F-22 replacement with a combat radius more suitable for the Indo-Pacific theatre would have to be significantly larger than the Raptor to carry enough fuel. This would further increase both procurement and operating costs. Nevertheless, the fact that the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force feels confident enough to publicly talk about replacing rather than augmenting his premier Air Dominance asset with NGAD is a huge vote of confidence from someone who has all the clearances and responsibilities needed to evaluate NGAD clearly in its current form.
One final thing to consider, however, is the fate of the A-10C Thunderbolt II fleet. The US Air Force has tried repeatedly to retire the iconic ground attack and close air support jets, to free up funding for fighter fleets more relevant to the high intensity mission sets implied by a renewed focus on Russia and China as primary force drivers. However, Congressional opposition has not only prevented the A-10C from being retired, but has forced the US Air Force to invest in extensive structural renewal efforts to allow them to fly for many years to come. If the service does try to retire the hugely symbolic and still unchallenged king of air dominance after only a short service life, it would not be surprising if similar Congressional opposition allowed the F-22 to live on.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology