Military doesn’t want the F-22, the politicians want the F-22

For two consecutive years, the U.S. Air Force has aimed to retire a portion of the F-22 Raptor fighter jets, but their efforts have been stymied by Congress. At first blush, this might seem at odds with regular logic – the military advocating for reductions in armament, while lawmakers push to keep them in service. But the complex truth lies in the turbulent history of the fighter jet. 

Military doesn't want the F-22, the politicians want the F-22
Photo credit: Pixabay

The U.S. decided to construct a cutting-edge, fifth-generation air superiority fighter during the brink of a brewing conflict with the USSR in the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1990 that the YF-22A prototype first took to the skies, by which time the projected need for 750 units for the Air Force, alongside an additional 550 for the US Navy, seemed unlikely. 

But with the development costs soaring to an eye-watering 70 billion dollars, there was no option except to go ahead with the production of the aircraft. However, only the Air Force got the new jet. The Navy, in contrast, opted to upgrade the F/A-18F/E Super Hornet. Instead of the proposed 750 jets, the Air Force ended up with a mere 187 F-22s due to progressive cutbacks. 

The early versions of the fighter, known as Block 10, lacked advanced functionalities and the ability to employ precision ground-strike weaponry, which was a prerequisite for 4+ generation aircraft. The Block 20 units were without an upgraded AN/APG-77[V] radar 1, hindering the detection of ground targets. It wasn’t until the Block 30 production in 2006-2007, that the jet obtained full functionality, and production ceased altogether in 2011. 

The export market seemed like a lifeline for the F-22. However, an unfavorable legal landscape bottled up the export potential of the fighter, even as countries like Australia, Japan, and Israel displayed interest in acquiring it. This effectively left the US with a rather small fleet of F-22. 

Now, the Pentagon wishes to retire 32 of its F-22 Block 20 units, as these jets lack full combat capability and incur steep maintenance expenses. In a period where a cost-effective fighter is much sought after by the US Air Force, the F-22 commands an operating cost of a staggering $75,000 per flight hour. 

Decommissioning these 32 jets would lead to annual savings of $485 million, or $15 million per aircraft. These savings are earmarked for the development of Next Generation Air Dominance – NGAD, the projected sixth-generation fighter. The only worry is the tentative plans to order a relatively low count of 200 units. 

For now, Congress continues to stonewall the decommissioning of the F-22 Block 20. Lawmakers insist on maintaining a total fleet size of 1,112 aircraft. This stand-off between Capitol Hill and the Pentagon is set to continue amid annual budget negotiations.


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