The Death and (Possible) Rebirth of the F-22: Congress Calls for Investigation into Production Restart

An F-22 flies over the Atlantic during basic combat training. USAF photo.

An F-22 flies over the Atlantic during basic combat training.

Article updated 7/9/2017 to increase readability.

The F-22 is venerated as the world’s most advanced fighter. Employing advanced technologies such as thrust vectoring, an active electronically scanned array radar, and extensive stealth/signature reduction, the F-22 is equipped to take on any other aircraft in operation today and come out on top. Yet, the Air Force only procured 187 combat-kitted F-22s, a small number compared to the 438 F-15 aircraft that help fill the Air Force’s twin-engine high-performance aircraft niche. The F-35 is supposed to make up the difference as the F-15s retire, but its troubled development history and series of performance downgrades are causing some alarm. Many worry that the F-35 alone will not be capable enough to tackle emerging threats such as the PAK-FA and J-20.

YF-22 and YF-23

The YF-22 (foreground) and YF-23 (background). Note the subtle but substantial design differences.

The F-22’s life began as a result of the Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program, which was initiated in 1981 to produce an air superiority fighter utilizing advanced technologies. Stealth, or the ability to deflect radar waves, and supercruise, the ability to travel above Mach 1 without afterburners, were requirements for the program. The USAF received a wide variety of prototype designs with features ranging from canards to forward-swept wings. One behemoth, proposed by Lockheed Martin, would have weighed over 110,000lbs, while another submitted by McDonnel Douglas clocked in at less than 20,000lbs. Eventually, the competition was narrowed down to two designs: the YF-22 and YF-23. Lockheed’s slower but more agile and conventional YF-22 eventually won out over the odd-looking YF-23. The YF-22 featured clipped delta wings, stabilators, and two vertical stabilizers with rudders. This layout is more similar to other USAF aircraft combat than the other concepts submitted. Stealth featured heavily in the YF-22’s philosophy, which is evidenced by the “clean” and angular appearance of the aircraft (protrusions increase radar cross-section, while angular surfaces aid in deflection).

The winner had been chosen, but there was still much work to be done before an operational aircraft could be fielded. By the time the ATF program was been completed the Soviet Union had collapsed, leaving the aircraft with no clear adversary. Nevertheless, development soldiered on. The program encountered various technical issues, as is typical for any complex weapons system, although the ATF’s overruns and delays were particularly egregious. Oftentimes, avionics and other equipment ended up being heavier than predicted,  resulting in somewhat decreased performance. Design changes were frequently made as well, including repositioning the cockpit slightly, decreasing the leading edge wing sweep angle from 48 to 42 degrees, and reducing the vertical stabilizer area by 20%.

The groundbreaking APG-77 radar used on the F-22. While not the first AESA to be installed on a fighter aircraft, the APG-77 is a highly sophisticated radar.

The groundbreaking APG-77 radar used on the F-22. While not the first active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar to be installed on a fighter aircraft, the APG-77 was advanced for its time.

Yet, the most risky aspects of the F-22 design were not mechanical but electronic features designed to afford the pilot a high level of situational awareness. In order to do so, all the aircraft’s sensors organic sensors are integrated into a central computer which also assimilates external information to produce a realtime representation of the battlespace. Having the ability to receive and integrate this information passively is a massive benefit, as identifying and engaging targets is crucial to any operation. The integrated avionics significantly reduce pilot workload as well by removing the need for the pilot to mentally keep track of multiple contacts and communications links. However, sensor fusion was a relatively novel concept at the time, requiring a lot of code as well as a reasonably fast (by 1990s standards) onboard computer.

A series of reductions in the number of aircraft to be purchased exacerbated the program’s difficulties. While initial plans called for around 700 aircraft, the program’s rising costs led defense planners to revisit this figure. An absence of threats also factored into the decision: the F-15 and F-16 had proven their mettle in Desert Storm and there did not seem to be any threats they could not handle for the foreseeable future — Russian aircraft development slowed significantly in the post-Soviet era and China was not yet able to produce cutting-edge aircraft.

By 2001, Congress had capped the F-22 buy at 333 aircraft with a cost ceiling of 37.6 billion. USAF estimates indicated that this goal probably would not be met and the GAO was even more pessimistic.

The F-22 was declared operational in 2005, but by this time, production costs had become alarmingly high. The flyaway cost of an F-22 was $150 million in FY2009 dollars, a figure which by definition does not include the costs incurred by research and development as well as other program expenditures. When these expenses are included, the cost per aircraft is well in excess of $200 million (the exact figure varies depending on the method of calculation). This placed the cost of each F-22 at over three times the price of an F-15; the F-22 was also tens of millions times more expensive than any other fighter on the market at the time.

The cost increases and lack of a clear threat adversary ended up hurting the F-22’s sales — only 187 combat-spec F-22s were produced before Congress capped the buy and ended the F-22’s production run. However, tooling for the F-22 was saved in anticipation that the line may need to be restarted either to produce new aircraft or to fabricate spare parts. The final F-22 rolled off the production line in 2011.

So, after making the decision to cap F-22 production and terminate the line, why are lawmakers and military experts investigating the possibility of resuming production? After all, resuming production after a five year hiatus is quite inefficient. Restarting the line alone would cost around $200 million, the aircraft themselves will not have gotten any cheaper, and updating the F-22’s electronics to modern standards would likely add millions in cost to each aircraft.

The answer is that the US’s military’s priorities and worries have shifted quite a bit since lawmakers originally capped the F-22 buy. At the time, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were of primary concern, and the counterinsurgency effort would benefit little from high-end gear such as the F-22. In addition, the US’s military supremacy seemed assured: Russia was largely passive politically and its military was mostly obsolete. China was also of little concern, as most of its aircraft were highly outdated and a large portion of its budget went into maintaining a massive infantry force. Now, both of these countries have rapidly changed their military strategies. Russia has invested large sums into modernizing its military and building advanced aircraft such as the Su-35 and eventually the PAK-FA. Russia’s incursions into the Ukraine have also sparked fears in the West that Russia may become increasingly aggressive in the future. China, for its part, is developing stealth aircraft of its own (such as the J-20), and has repeatedly clashed with other nations over territory in the South China Seas. China has also re-organized its military so that less money is spent maintaining a colossal and largely obsolete infantry force, thereby increasing the funds available for procurement of advanced aircraft and systems.

All of these developments have contributed to an environment where some feel more F-22s are necessary to maintain the US’s technological edge for the next thirty or so years. But what makes the F-22 so valuable? What does it do the F-35 can’t?

An F-22 taxis on a runway during an exercise.

An F-22 taxis on a runway during an exercise.

The answer lies in air-to-air combat. The F-22 has many characteristics traditionally typical of successful combat aircraft: it can climb and turn rapidly as well as fly at high speeds (Mach 2+). Both the F-22 and F-35 have stealth and advanced radars and avionics. In fact, the avionics suite of the F-35 is in some ways superior to that of the F-22, and the F-35 is phenomenally sophisticated when it comes to identifying targets and integrating data. However, the F-35 is rather slow and does not maneuver nearly as well as the F-22 or newer Russian aircraft such as the Su-35. While the F-35 is designed to use its sensors and stealth to overcome these disadvantages, some analysts fear that the F-35 will not fare well in combat against opponents who have either help from ground-based stealth-detecting radars or have stealth themselves. It is also possible that, if the US’s medium-range air-to-air missile (currently the AMRAAM) was to prove ineffective against Russian or Chinese aircraft and countermeasures, the F-35 could be forced to take close-range fights which it may not be able to win. The F-22, on the other hand, has thrust vectoring and can easily hold its own in a dogfight against any current or projected adversary. The F-22 can also carry more air-to-air missiles, meaning one missile failing to find its target is less of a problem. Of course, whether these concerns regarding the F-35 are valid cannot be fully known until the F-35 sees combat and Russia and China field their next-generation equipment.

In the end, the chances of restarting the F-22 line will be heavily influenced by circumstance and politics. If the 2016 elections see a Congress and president friendly to defense spending increases, the F-22 has at least a chance at receiving a new lease on life. Chances of a restart would also be bolstered significantly by aggression from Russia or China, which could push US lawmakers to respond by bolstering high-end military capabilities. Favorable findings in the restart investigation report or failures of other systems such as the F-35 could also tip the scales. If there are no significant incidents in the next few years and Congress ends up being hesitant to increase spending, the F-22 restart will probably remain a pipe dream supported only by a minority of politicians and defense professionals. As is the case for many contested defense programs, only time will tell.

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Alex Hempel
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