The F-22 Raptor is an amazing aircraft. Its stealth faculties, coupled with its unmatched maneuvering and super cruise capabilities, make it the most dominant air-to-air fighter in the world. Yet, the Air Force wants to retire 33 of these jets because upgrading them would cost money they’d rather use to develop future systems.
It is a false choice, and in the face of growing threats from America’s adversaries, Congress needs to act to stop the retirement.
The Raptor was designed to replace the F-15 fighter and, while the F-22 is a much more capable jet, the Defense Department limited its acquisition of the then-new aircraft to only 187—a fleet less than a quarter the size of the one it replaced.
Now the Air Force wants to retire 33 of the early models, the Block 20s that are mostly used for training, claiming that modernizing them to the Block 30 standard would be too expensive.
Andrew Hunter, the assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, argues that upgrading those F-22s would limit the funds available to develop and field an unmanned aircraft, a drone, to fly alongside the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) aircraft when it arrives sometime after 2030. But this argument shows little concern about the dangers of diminishing the service’s already sorely stretched operational capabilities.
The eight years between now and when those new platforms might start arriving is already overloaded with risk. Reducing the F-22 fleet would pile risk on top of risk, reducing the viable fighter capacity of the service in the face of growing Russian and Chinese threats that the Air Force cannot simply wish away.
The number of air superiority fighters available for a fight with a peer competitor is staggeringly low. At the height of the Cold War, the Air Force had over 730 F-15 air superiority fighters with a mission capable rate of more than 80 percent. That meant that, after you remove the jets dedicated to training and test, more than 400 operational F-15s that were ready to fight the Soviet Union at any given time.
Today, the Air Force has 186 F-22As, but subtracting out those used for training or for testing new systems leaves just operational 142 fighters. Retiring the Block 20 aircraft would force the Air Force to set aside some 25 percent of those remaining jets to training platforms, leaving just 114 available for operational units. With a mission capable rate of 51 percent, only 58 would be available for combat at any given time—about 15 percent of the F-15s that were ready to face the Soviets.
While the F-22A is an incredibly capable fighter, those numbers are grossly insufficient for a peer fight. If the Air Force upgraded the Block 20 jets to the Block 30 standard, it would not just retain the entire fleet of combat capable fighters, it could, in a pinch, commit those trainers to fight.
Meanwhile, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has stated that China is America’s biggest threat. And while his chief of staff, Gen. C.Q. Brown, is optimistic that the Chinese will not overtake Air Force “air superiority” until 2035, it’s hard to draw comfort from his confidence.
First, there’s a difference between the technology required to dominate a piece of airspace and the number of aircraft required to hold it. With the displaced fighter and tanker basing associated with the defense of Taiwan, it would take at least a squadron of 24 mission capable jets to maintain an eight-jet combat air patrol (CAP) over that island nation, and it would take more than three CAPS to defend it.
Second, the service has held on to its assessment that China will be a threat “sometime in the 2030s” for more than a decade, despite the accelerated growth of China’s military, its technological advances and the assessments of other services and agencies. Last year, a former commander of US Pacific Command stated that China wants to have the capability to move against Taiwan by 2027—an assessment shared by the current Indo-Pacific commander, the current director of the CIA and repeated by Defense Department policy chief Colin Kahl earlier this month.
The Air Force’s NGAD fighter will not be operational until the early 2030s and, if China moves on Taiwan before then, it will need every stealth fighter it can get its hands on. Even with today’s dismal mission capable rates, 33 upgraded F-22s would increase the operational fleet by 17 jets.
And don’t count on the F-35 to fill this gap. While the F-35 can augment the F-22 in its air-to-air role, the primary mission of the Air Force’s 96 mission capable joint strike fighters is to take down the surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems that threaten all fighters. Any other jets—including the new, $107 million a copy, F-15EX—that might attempt to operate inside the threat rings of Chinese or Russian SAMs would be easy prey for those systems.
Yes, modifying the Block 20s will be expensive. But rather than throw in the towel, the nation would be better served if the Air Force fought for the money to sustain them or if lawmakers provided the funding anyway. Neither the Chinese nor the Russians will be deterred by a brochure about the Air Force’s next fighter.
This piece originally appeared in Breaking Defense