F-22 remains the US top pick against China despite upgrade costs

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Remaining a favored choice of the United States Air Force [USAF], the F-22 Raptor—a noteworthy fifth-generation fighter jet by Lockheed Martin—is significant to the United States’ defense strategy, especially when confronting threats from China. The profound value attached to the F-22 Raptor is underscored by Congress’s intervention to prevent the White House from discontinuing its use. 

Photo credit: Pixabay

In light of escalating global geopolitical concerns and the looming threat from China, the United States continues to prioritize the modernization of the F-22 Raptor, undeterred by increasing costs. Andrew Hunter, the Chief Acquisition Officer, stated that the strong defensive prowess of the USAF is deeply interconnected with the capabilities of the F-22 Raptor. 

Even though the F-35 is a formidable addition to the United States defense fleet, the unique role of the F-22 Raptor remains irreplaceable until an efficient successor is unveiled. Asserting the aircraft’s importance, Hunter confirmed that the country continues to prioritize the F-22 Raptor in its defense strategies.

$15 million per year per unit

His primary focus became resoundingly clear when he grasped the USAF’s skeptical outlook on upgrading the Block 20 aircraft—a decision that some might perceive as exceedingly ambitious. “If I had to identify my most urgent priority in this fierce competition, it would undoubtedly be the F-22,” he declared. 

In 2023, the US Air Force lodged a plea to retire its fleet of 32 F-22 Raptor Block 20 units currently in operation. Furthermore, the USAF requested for the budget originally allocated for upgrading these planes to be rerouted into the development of a sixth-generation combat aircraft also referred to as the Next Generation Air Dominance [NGAD]. 

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Regrettably, this sincere proposal encountered a roadblock in Congress when discussed in the framework of the FY23 National Defense Authorization Act, a document that was published in December 2023. However, it’s worth pointing out that the annual operating budget for the F-22 Raptor Block 20 that the USAF operates amounts to a staggering 485 million US dollars. Indeed, the USAF finds itself spending $15 million per year on each unit alone.

There are still serviceable F-22s

The financial implications of transitioning each aircraft from Unit 20 to Unit 35 hover around a significant US$50 million, a sum deemed quite steep. This has led to a proposition to Congress to redirect the funds designated for the F-22 Raptor upgrade toward the development of NGAD. 

Photo credit: Pixabay

A noteworthy clarification came from Air Force Chief of Staff General David Alvin who revealed that his party has maintained several aircraft units believed to possess the required fitness for continued combat. “Our goal is to maintain those in their prime operational state, keep them in active service, and subsequently invest some resources in units that require significant upkeep,” stated Alvin. 

On weighing the pros and cons, preserving the F-22 Raptor as the “flagship” of the United States presents remarkable advantages. Chief among these is delivering a protective shield to the country and its allies against potential threats, particularly from the Eastern Bloc, including China and Russia. 

Nevertheless, a differing viewpoint comes from the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff and planner, Lt. Gen. Richard Moore. According to him, the failure to include the latest communication components offers a compelling argument for the immediate and phased retirement of the F-22 Raptor. Moreover, the aircraft lacks the support of current weaponry and electronic warfare capabilities. 

“The Raptors will make never it to the combat force. They lack advanced communication systems. They do not carry the most sophisticated weapons. They are devoid of the most updated electronic warfare capabilities,” stated Moore. This raises a crucial question: Why does Congress still advocate for preserving the F-22 Raptor as the “flagship” of the United States’ defense?

Still better than the F-35

If we look into the details from Lockheed Martin’s official site, we can see that the F-22 Raptor exhibits outstanding flight performance, far surpassing its predecessor since its inception in 1997. This exceptional performance can be attributed to a harmonious blend of stealth capabilities, speed, agility, and situational awareness, supplemented by its extensive air-to-air and air-to-surface arsenal that delivers a lethal punch. 

But the F-22 Raptor brings more to the table. It offers an array of services ranging from the Reliability and Maintainability Maturation Program [RAMMP], opportunities for upgrades, advances in stealth coverage, engine maintenance, and an efficient Integrated Maintenance Information System [IMIS]. 

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Given these features and capabilities, it’s only logical that the United States Congress supports the US Air Force’s drive to keep these aircraft operational for as long as possible. Powering the F-22 Raptor are its twin Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 turbofan engines. Each of these engines generates a thrust of 116 kN when operating normally, and can reach as high as 156 kN afterburn. Thanks to these specs, the Raptor can achieve an incredible speed of Mach 2.25, a combat range of 460 nautical miles, and a total range of 1,600 nautical miles, outperforming the F-35 in these regards.

Because of China

The main offensive force of this aircraft is its M61A2 Vulcan rotary cannon, which possesses a caliber of 20 mm and is equipped with a significant ammo capacity of 480 rounds. Its firepower is further augmented by the presence of AIM-9x Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, as well as JDAM air-to-surface missiles, substantially enhancing the aircraft’s attack potential. 

Of equal importance to the aircraft’s functionality is its advanced avionics setup. A sure highlight is the AESA AN/APG-77 or AN/APG-77[V]1 radar. This remarkable system can identify targets more than 400 km away within a limited range. Given the potential threats from China, the United States must continue to maintain this technology.


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