The U.S. Air Force F-22 fleet was prematurely truncated around 169 aircraft following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The decision, which was in retrospect regarded as ill-advised and detrimental to the U.S. Air Force’s ability to maintain its edge over great power rivals such as Russia and China. Perhaps decision-makers at the time were distracted by counterinsurgency and operated with only a short-term threat calculus. After all, while built in the 1990s, the F-22 was first introduced in 2005 during the height of the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Circling the Fleet
The size of the fleet, however, is merely one of several reasons why even the older F-22s should not be retired. An ability to “mass” F-22s for their well-known “first-strike, first-kill” mission mantra would be compromised should the fleet be greatly reduced. However, continued service life for the F-22 would be much less relevant if the aircraft did not retain or expand upon its combat performance abilities.
This is the most vital reason why the F-22 should be extended as long as possible, because 3.2b software upgrades have massively improved the attack capacity of the craft’s air-to-air weapons and its stealth coating has been maintained and reinforced. This 3.2b software upgrade, which began development and use several years ago, improved the guidance, targeting, precision, and range of several impactful air-to-air weapons such as the AIM-9X and AIM-120D. With this enhancement, which is now operational across the fleet, the F-22 has arguably maintained its air-to-air supremacy moving into the future.
While often thought of by pilots as an “aerial quarterback,” air-to-air supremacy fighter with an optimal thrust-to-weight ratio and the most maneuverable air-combat fighter in existence, the F-22 has in more recent years shown its versatility by successfully performing Close Air Support attack missions against ISIS in 2014. This 2014 deployment was in fact the F-22’s first combat deployment.
Rapid Raptor Program – First Shot, First Kill
The Raptor is also famous for its first-strike, first-kill mission assignment, as the Air Force has an existing, yet lesser known “Rapid Raptor” program designed to forward position F-22s in vital locations such that it can attack anywhere in the world within 24 hours. The Rapid Raptor Program requires maintainers and support equipment to ensure readiness in the event that F-22s need to immediately respond and be tasked to attack in remote or unanticipated areas.
Networking breakthroughs with communications technology allowing the aircraft to increasingly exchange information with 4th-generation aircraft and even use LINK 16 for two-way connectivity with F-35s. There is even an emerging Northrop Grumman radio, called the Freedom 550, which uses advanced frequencies and software programming to enable F-22 to F-35 two-way targeting data exchange while preserving “stealth mode” and not emitting a detectable electronic signature. The F-22 will also be configured to use an advanced transport layer command and control to operate multiple drones from the cockpit.
Continued modernization and the viability and maintenance of its airframes and stealth properties suggest it would be ill-advised to deplete the existing fleet of F-22s, in large measure because it will likely also be configured to support, fly alongside with, and reinforce emerging 6th-generation aircraft.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.