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The U.S. Air Force Has an F-22 Raptor Problem Russia and China Love

F-22 Raptor
Image: YouTube Screenshot.

Simply put: No more can be built.

The F-22 Raptor remains the world’s premier air superiority fighter, with the fifth-generation aircraft’s combination of stealth and speed leaving it unmatched in aerial combat. But while the aircraft offers impressive capability, the United States Air Force’s capacity for fielding F-22s remains limited. The F-22 program was canceled in 2009 and capped at 187 aircraft, with fewer than that number having entered into and remaining available for operational service today. It is looking increasingly unlikely that this situation will change at any point in the future.

The F-22 program was cancelled and capped at a number well below the Air Force’s planned purchase of 750 Raptors as a result of both the Raptor’s cost and concerns over a lack of a clear role or need for such an advanced dedicated air-to-air fighter. The F-22 program had experienced significant schedule delays and cost overruns, and by the end of the 2010s, it was estimated that the cost of a single Raptor was more than $300 million.

Equally damming for the Raptor was the fact that at the time of the program’s cancelation, the United States was still embroiled in two protracted conflicts against low-technology opponents, for which an expensive stealth air superiority fighter was particularly ill-suited. As a result, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – who was concerned that the U.S. military was too focused on preparing and equipping the armed forces for a potential future fight against a great power opponent at the expense of the wars the United States was actually waging, an attitude that he saw as reflected in the Air Force’s push for more Raptors – lead the charge for the F-22 program’s cancelation.

In the years since, great power competition has arrived, and both Russia and China are developing their own fifth-generation fighters in a bid for air supremacy in the event of a potential conflict in the form of the SU-57 and J-20, respectively. The U.S. Air Force has been unable to bolster its Raptor fleet following the program’s cancelation and is also faced with the prospect of being unable to replace F-22s as they age or break down.

Why No More F-22s? 

Despite this, it is unlikely that a new run of F-22s will be coming at any point in the future. The reason again largely boils down to cost: a report from 2017 found that the cost of restarting F-22 production would be prohibitively expensive, estimating that it would cost roughly $50 billion to produce another 194 Raptors at a cost of over $200 million per aircraft.

In addition to the cost, by the time that new Raptors would become available in the middle part of the decade, Russia and China will have continued to develop their own capabilities to the point that the Raptor’s advantage over them will have significantly narrowed.

In order to compensate, the Air Force is now considering the future of its fighter fleet without the F-22. The Air Force has committed to purchasing a number of upgraded F-15s in order to bolster its air superiority capabilities and is proceeding with its Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.

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