WASHINGTON — Top Air Force officials are now convinced the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor lacks the magazine depth and range needed to carry it into the next decade as the service’s air superiority fighter of choice.
But the exact timing of its retirement will depend on how quickly the Air Force can put its sixth-generation fighter into production, said Lt. Gen. Clinton Hinote, the service’s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements.
“By about the 2030 timeframe, you’re talking about a 40-year-old platform [in the F-22], and it’s just not going to be the right tool for the job, especially when we’re talking about defending our friends like Taiwan and Japan and the Philippines against a Chinese threat that grows and grows,” Hinote told Defense News in an exclusive May 13 interview.
“We’re treating [the F-22] as the bridge to the NGAD capability,” he said, using an acronym for the Next Generation Air Dominance program, under which the service plans to develop a sixth-generation fighter to replace the F-22.
Hinote spoke with Defense News a day after Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown disclosed the service’s upcoming plan to phase out the F-22 and streamline the service’s fighter inventory to four main fighter variants.
Those four aircraft include NGAD, the Lockheed Martin F-35 joint strike fighter, Boeing F-15EX and Lockheed F-16.
“Right now we have seven fighter fleets. My intent is to get down to about four. With that four, what is the right mix?” Brown said at the McAleese and Associates conference on Wednesday. He added that the service would also retain the A-10 Warthog attack plane “for a while.”
Talk of the F-22′s future was conspicuously absent in Brown’s comments, even though the Raptor currently ranks as the Air Force’s second newest fighter and its premier air superiority fighter.
Hinote said the F-22′s retirement would be “event-driven” and interwoven with NGAD’s development, occurring closer to the 2030s than in the upcoming fiscal year 2022 budget cycle.
“We don’t have to make that decision this year,” he said. “What we’re going to want to see is, when do we press from the NGAD being a developmental program to being a production program? Some people call that milestone C.”
Few details have been released about the highly classified NGAD program, but service officials conceive it as a family of systems — not simply a traditional fighter jet flown by a human pilot. Last September, former Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper announced that a full-scale NGAD demonstrator had made its inaugural flight.
“At the moment we’re thinking that it’s manned, unmanned and optionally manned,” Hinote said. “Frankly I think we’re going to explore all of those to go forward to see exactly what the best use of this is.”
It’s unclear how close NGAD is to being fielded, but Hinote said it is proceeding ahead of expectations.
“Some of our best airmen and joint partners are very impressed with the progress that the primes have made, and all of the other subcontractors have made,” he said. “Probably the biggest part of it is going to be this idea of digital design and then integration of the systems on the government reference architecture. If we can do those things well, we’re going to field it earlier,” he said.
If not, the Air Force will have to retain the F-22 longer.
“It’s a great airplane,” Hinote said of the F-22. But as the service moves into the 2030s, the Raptor will find itself outpaced by adversary technologies. In a war game the Air Force held last year, which simulated a Chinese invasion of Taiwan set in the mid-2030s, the service relied on NGAD to penetrate into areas populated by Chinese threats.
“We couldn’t use the F-22 in that way,” he said.
The F-22′s limitations, Hinote said, include a small fleet size that contributes to high operating costs and low mission capable rates. It has a relatively short-range — only 1,850 nautical miles with two external fuel tanks — and its weapons magazine is small and lacks depth and range.
Even its survivability will eventually be at stake as adversary nations field more capable air defense systems and its stealth advantage degrades, he said.
The F-22′s range and magazine depth issues aren’t that different than those from the F-35, Hinote acknowledged. The F-22 can carry six AIM-120C AMRAAM and two AIM-9 missiles internally for air-to-air missions, while the F-35 can carry only four AMRAAMs inside its payload bay while maintaining a stealth configuration.
However, the F-35 is newer, more flexible and easier to maintain, with a longer service life ahead of it than what the F-22 can offer, and new weapons incoming as part of its Block 4 upgrade program.
In addition, the Air Force will operate the F-35 in greater numbers, with only 186 F-22s in the Air Force’s inventory compared to 283 F-35A models as of May 8, according to Military.com.
And importantly, the F-35 is easier to modernize than the F-22 — although Hinote noted that there will a request in the fiscal 2022 budget to make targeted upgrades to the F-22′s sensor capability, as well as to fund new weapons that can be used across the entire fighter inventory.
“You will see in our budget submissions that we are pursuing advanced air to air missiles,” he said. “We’re going to need that if we’re going to upgrade all of our fighters. Yes, you can could conceivably put that into the F-22. That won’t obviate some of the other challenges.”
Besides NGAD, the Air Force plans on retaining the F-35 — which Brown said will act as the “cornerstone” of the fighter inventory — as well as the F-15EX and F-16.
The F-15EX was initially purchased to replace F-15C/D Eagles that are nearing the end of their service life, but Brown’s disclosure also portends the eventual sunset of the F-15E Strike Eagle as well.
Hinote said that the service is still studying whether it can modify its F-15Es to an EX configuration or whether it will buy new planes from Boeing.
Eventually, the Air Force will also seek a replacement for its F-16 fleet. Brown has previously said the Air Force will consider buying a clean-sheet design or new production F-16s instead of purchasing additional F-35s to replace the F-16.
“I don’t need to make that decision today,” Brown said on Wednesday. “That’s probably six, seven, eight years away into the future. But I need to do is start shaping the thought process.”
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.