Keeping 180 F-22s Operating to 2030 Costs More Than Buying 110 New F-35s: Air Force Pushing Hard to Cut Raptors

The U.S. Air Force is seeking to press through congressional resistance to its efforts to begin retiring F-22 Raptor fifth generation fighter aircraft in 2023, with 32 airframes or 17% of the fleet marked for removal from the fleet this year. Plans to retire the F-22s were first announced in March 2022, a year after it was confirmed that the Air Force did not see the troubled fighters as part of its fleet’s future. Among a range of operational issues, a key outstanding argument for retiring the F-22 are its tremendous operational costs and maintenance requirements, which not only make availability rates by far the lowest in the fleet, but also mean that even with the aircraft already built it is seen as far more cost effective to retire them and buy new aircraft than it is to keep them flying. Air Force acquisition executive Andrew Hunter informed the House Armed Services Committee’s tactical aviation panel to this effect on March 29 that the service’s budget assumed that the aircraft would be retired. It was highlighted at the time that keeping the fleet of an estimated 184 F-22s in service for the next six and a half years to 2030 would cost the Air Force $9 billion. This is equivalent to the cost of procuring another 110 new F-35As – a much more sophisticated newer fighter from the same generation. 

The F-22 was initially intended to be developed with lower operational costs than its predecessor the F-15, which other than the Raptor continues to have the highest operational costs in in the U.S. Air Force. Its operational costs at close to $70,000 per hour, and by some estimates much higher, are over double those of any other American fighter class despite having a comparable size to the F-15. A further factor increasing the costs of keeping the F-22s in service is the current obsolescence of their avionics, even compared to fourth generation fighters from the early 2000s and moreso against fifth generation competitors like the F-35 and J-20. This leaves their viability for air to air combat in serious question, with a lack of up to date data links in particular seriously constraining their ability to contribute to modern network centric operations. The lack of helmet mounted sights also leaves F-22s at an overwhelming disadvantage in visual range combat against most modern adversaries, with even Soviet fighters from the 1980s such as the basic MiG-29A and Su-27S having such sights and thus capable of engaging targets at high off boresight angles – something all American fighter classes except the F-22 have gained the ability to do in their modernised variants. 

Regarding the obsolesce of the F-22 in its current configuration, particularly against the rival Chinese J-20 fifth generation fighter, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs Lt. Gen. Richard G. Moore,  told the House Armed Services Committee’s tactical aviation panel: “Based on the most advanced weapons that an F-22 Block 20 can carry now, it is not competitive with the J-20, with the most advanced weapons the Chinese can put on it.” He highlighted that upgrading early production F-22s would be “cost-prohibitive and very time intensive.” Savings from cuts to the F-22 program would, according to Moore, allow for more funding to developing a sixth generation fighter – one which is being pursued to counter both the J-20 and its expected next generation successor. The combination of high operational costs, very poor availability rates and the need for highly costly upgrades to be viable in combat provides a very strong incentive to retire the F-22 fleet, with the updated F-15EX as well as the F-35s both providing a much more cost effective and modern air to air capabilities. The F-35 and J-20 have very significant advantages in their avionics over the F-22 including more sophisticated radars and use of distributed aperture systems – features which even costly upgrades to the F-22 will not provide. 

The F-22’s very poor range, much lower than any fighter class of its size, is also a serious constraint particularly in the Pacific theatre where the longer ranged F-35 and F-15 will be better able to operate without an extreme reliance on tanker aircraft for aerial refuelling. Its obsolescence for high end air superiority missions has also become more of an issue due to the fighter’s uniquely low versatility, which means it cannot carry anti surface missiles or advanced electronic warfare suites allowing it to operate in other roles as the F-15 did. Retiring the F-22 has nevertheless been controversial for multiple reasons. The fighter saw 75% of production cut due to issues with the design and contracting budgets, with orders given to end production less than four years after the class entered service. This and the lack of any other fighters optimised to high end air superiority missions in the American fleet other than the F-15, which has been flying for over half a century since 1972, as well as the serious issues plaguing the development of the much lighter F-35 fifth generation fighter, has fuelled hesitance in Congress to begin retiring the F-22 despite its considerable shortcomings.