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 currently fill the Air Force’s twin-engine high-performance aircraft niche. The F-35 is supposed to make up the difference and supplement the F-22 in the air-to-air role, but its troubled development history and series of performance downgrades (sustained turn rate in particular has been downgraded multiple times) are causing some alarm. Many worry that the F-35 alone will not be enough to tackle emerging threats such as the PAK-FA and J-20.
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 was 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. Lockheed’s design called for clipped delta wings, stabilators, and two vertical stabilizers with rudders. This layout was less of a departure from other USAF aircraft, such as the F-15 and F-16, than the other concepts submitted. The YF-22 featured stealth heavily in its design, 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 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 F-22’s program overruns and delays were particularly egregious. Oftentimes, avionics and other equipment ended up being heavier than predicted, resulting in slightly decreased performance. Design changes were 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%.
Yet, the most risky aspects of the F-22 design were not mechanical but electronic features. The F-22 was designed to afford the pilot very high levels of situational awareness. This was to be achieved through integrating all the aircraft’s sensors organic sensors into a central computer that would also process external sensor input to produce a realtime representation of the battlespace for the pilot. Having the ability to receive and integrate this information passively is a massive benefit in combat; no matter how well an aircraft may perform performance-wise, it will not be able to carry out its mission unless it can identify and intercept targets. By providing the F-22 pilot with the information from his own sensors as well as the sensors of other aircraft, the ability of an F-22 pilot to find and engage targets is increased drastically. The integrated avionics were to significantly reduce pilot workload as well, because without integrated avionics the pilot would be left to mentally integrate the information from their various sensors and datalinks while operating the aircraft. However, the concept was relatively novel and required large amounts of coding 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 to be purchased, the end of the Cold War and the rising costs associated with the program led many 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 either purchasing from Russia or building indigenous but obsolete 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 what costs are included). This places 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 endedup dooming the F-22; only 187 combat-spec F-22s were produced, as Congress capped the buy and ended the F-22’s production run. However, the 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 war 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 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?
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 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 restart. Chances of a restart would also be bolstered significantly by aggression by 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 towards an F-22 restart. 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.