WASHINGTON — Although US Air Force and industry officials have repeatedly dubbed reviving Lockheed Martin's F-22 production line as a nonstarter, the service's outgoing chief of staff said Thursday it might not be such a crazy idea after all.
Gen. Mark Welsh's comments marked the first time since Congress floated the idea last month that Air Force leadership has acknowledged an F-22 restart as anything but pie in the sky.
Lawmakers have condemned the decision to shut down the F-22 line ever since Lockheed terminated production almost five years ago. But the idea of an F-22 revival could actually be gaining traction this year, after the full House passed legislation that would, if approved by the Senate and signed into law, direct the service to study the possibility.
At Congress's request, the Air Force has started to look at what an F-22 revival would take, Welsh said Thursday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association. The Air Force may even decide to build a modified F-22 instead of a sixth-generation fighter, Welsh hinted.
Although top Air Force officials have said in the past such a project would be cost-prohibitive, it's "not a crazy idea," Welsh said.
"I don't think it's a wild idea, I mean the success of the F-22 and the capability of the airplane and the crews that fly it are pretty exceptional. I think it's proven that the airplane is exactly what everybody hoped it would be," Welsh said. "We're using it in new and different ways and it's been spectacularly successful and its potential is really, really remarkable. And so going back and looking and certainly raising the idea: Well, could you build more? It's not a crazy idea."
The Air Force is currently working with Lockheed Martin to determine the feasibility and cost of such a project, Welsh said.
But this is not the first time the Air Force has looked into how much it would cost to begin building the stealth fighter again. An Air Force-commissioned 2010 study by the think tank Rand placed the cost to buy just 75 F-22s at $17 billion in 2008 dollars. And if the Air Force decides to upgrade the plane with modern technology instead of a one-for-one replacement, the price of the project could climb even higher.
The other obstacle is that Lockheed itself may not be on board with an F-22 restart. The company is focused right now on getting the F-35 across the finish line, and an F-22 revival could siphon funds away from the joint strike fighter.