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A Hard Choice for the U.S. Air Force: Stealth F-22s or NGAD?

The U.S. Air Force wants to focus efforts on NGAD and 6th generation fighter technology. But does that mean the F-22 has to be sacrificed to a certain extent?

NGAD
NGAD: Original artwork courtesy of Rodrigo Avella. Follow him on Instagram for more incredible aviation renders.

F-22 vs. Drones: Who Wins? A common misconception about the United States military is that it always wants “more.” In fact, in recent years, the United States Navy has called to retire many older warships, while the United States Air Force has long fought a battle with lawmakers in Washington over which aircraft must remain in service.

At issue is the cost of maintaining legacy programs, and that can often lead to some calls to retire some programs before lawmakers believe they’ve reached their expected end of life.

According to a report from Breaking Defense, Andrew Hunter, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics explained during an August 11 roundtable at the service’s Life Cycle Industry Days conference that maintaining the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor could impact efforts to develop and field the new drones that are part of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program. The sixth-generation aircraft, which is the centerpiece of the NGAD, is meant to replace the F-22.

However, NGAD is also meant to include a multitude of systems, notably an unmanned “collaborative combat aircraft.” To fund the development of the unmanned aerial system (UAS), the Air Force has called for retiring 33 Block 20 F-22 aircraft currently used for pilot training. The service has argued that it could free up as much as $1.8 billion over the next eight years. However, as Congress is expected to block such a move, it could impact the NGAD’s drone research and development (R&D) efforts, Hunter warned.

“The concern I would have would be on our ability to deliver on a collaborative combat aircraft system to complement NGAD,” Hunter said. “That’s where I can start to see impacts, and it would limit our ability to dedicate people and resources to an aggressive effort to field that capability.”

The Air Force has already requested about $52 million in fiscal year 2023 (FY23) to transition its Skyborg technology development effort to the “advanced component development and prototypes” stage. In addition to the money, Hunter further suggested that the service lacks the personnel and even infrastructure to dedicate to new capabilities if the Air Force is not allowed to retire legacy aircraft on time.

“If we were not to get divestments — generally and specific to the F-22 — we wouldn’t be able to migrate the air crews and the maintenance crews that work on those platforms to the next generation capabilities that we’re trying to field,” he continued. “We anticipate transitioning folks from our tactical aircraft community into those newer mission sets, and we’re looking to field on a very rapid timeframe.”

NGAD

US Air Force image of possible NGAD Concept. Image Credit: US Air Force.

The Air Force’s proposal to cut the F-22s is actually part of a much broader plan that calls for divestment of around 150 aircraft in FY23, which could then free funds for higher priorities such as the B-21 Raider bomber, hypersonic weapons programs, and notably the NGAD.

F-22: Advanced But Expensive

The F-22 is considered one of the most advanced aircraft ever developed, and it has one of the smallest radar signatures of any combat plane in service today. Yet, in part, because the program was considerably scaled back almost two decades ago, the Raptor is actually a great deal more expensive to fly and maintain per aircraft than even the more modern Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.

Sandboxx reported that based on Department of Defense (DoD) figures from 2018, the Air Force’s fleet of F-35As each cost about $28,455 per hour to fly, while the F-22 Raptor rings in at $33,538 per hour. That is a significant number – and it is easy to see why the service wants to retire the warbirds while it looks to future unmanned aircraft that will be cheaper to operate.

F-22

F-22 A Raptor Demonstration Team aircraft maintainers prepare to launch out Maj. Paul “Max” Moga, the first F-22A Raptor demonstration team pilot, July 13. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christopher L. Ingersoll)

Originally, the Air Force had planned to purchase upwards of 750 F-22 Raptors, but in 2006, the defense priorities of the United States had shifted away from deterring near-peers and toward the ongoing Global War on Terror (GWoT). As a result, the F-22 was scaled back, and it has been more of a burden than an asset ever since – which is a shame considering its capabilities.

A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Jacksonian Libertarian

    August 18, 2022 at 1:22 pm

    I’m in favor of mothballing in place (with their assigned units) the 1/2 of all US weapon systems with the least service life left, to free up funds for the transition to the “mature precision strike regime”. This would mean at least 50% of US weapons would be available in case of need.

    While the F-22 isn’t obsolete like so many other weapons, its service life is expiring, and saving them for emergency use until they can be replaced by UAVs is strategically wise.

  2. Arick

    August 18, 2022 at 3:12 pm

    This all goes back to the whole idea of wonderwaffe weapons. Why are we diminishing our fleets resilience in sacrafice to unproven concepts that at best will have cost over runs, delays, and likely gutted of tech concepts?(think the f35)

    Quality over quantity only works when your quality is one or more generations more advanced. Our adversaries tech “is” our tech, so quality means nothing.

    I say scrap the NGAD and make more Raptors. They are better then F35 in everyway worth mentioning. If we scale it up, that 33k fly hour will drop to the same as or less then F35.

    Yes develope new platforms, but we should retire platforms until the new ones are already in production.

    Unmanned vehicles should be the domain of the Space Force. They should be the ones developing these technologies and adapting them to existing platforms or carry on their own missions. Not the other way around.

  3. exordis

    August 18, 2022 at 6:35 pm

    The problem is that the NGAD is not expected to be operational until the 2030s according to open source publications, and the way things seem to be going we’re going to be in a kinetic war with China and/or Russia long before then. Few as they are, the F-22s are the most capable air-to-air platform we have. The F-35 got at best mixed reviews on its air-to-air capabilities trials, as I recall, and even then only after the rules of engagement were changed in its favor.

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