The loss of an F-22 Raptor during a training flight on May 15 serves as a wake-up call regarding the size of the Raptor inventory.
Tunnel vision over a decade ago related to counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq saw the nation buy too few F-22s, with just 187 purchased versus the 381 official military requirement. Now, with those wars largely in the rear-view mirror and a new National Defense Strategy, the capability attributes afforded by the F-22 are more important than ever.
These 5th generation stealth aircraft are the crown jewels in the nation’s military arsenal. The recent crash reinforces the need to double down on the F-22 force by fully funding necessary upgrades. No other capability — U.S. or foreign — will come close to the F-22 for years into the future. It is important that budget and inventory management decisions mirror that reality.
The F-22’s primary mission is to secure air superiority — a condition vital for any successful military operation. While the aircraft can also strike targets on the ground with great precision, and conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance inside contested airspace, at its heart the Raptor will remain an air-to-air champion. Because of its vast array of capabilities — not all known — the F-22 is our nation’s greatest conventional deterrent. While the current force size is small relative to other fighter forces, the F-22 has — at a minimum — an order of magnitude greater effect than any other fighter in the world.
The F-22 is a fundamentally unique airplane due to the unparalleled integration of stealth, sensor technology, processing power, and unrivaled flight performance. While many fighters have some elements of this mix, none possess the total package afforded by the F-22. Stealth makes it exceedingly difficult for an enemy to close the kill chain. Sensors and processing power allow it to understand the battlespace with tremendous acumen — allowing F-22s to be at the right place and time to achieve desired effects while minimizing vulnerabilities. Its flight characteristics of speed and maneuverability are simply unequaled by any other aircraft. Anyone questioning the value of the F-22 should consider why friends and foes alike are all pursuing options to develop like-capabilities — they are game-changing.
The fact that the nation needs more F-22s is not rocket science. However, since the F-22 production line closed years ago, this is not a feasible option. Ensuring the F-35 — a plane designed to complement the F-22 with a greater focus on ground attack — does not repeat this same mistake is certainly an important lesson. That aircraft is also an essential investment in our aerial arsenal. In fact, a greater F-35 annual buy-rate becomes more important given the small F-22 force. Future next generation air dominance concepts must also proceed. However, COVID-19-related budget pressures are likely going to delay meaningful advancement in this regard. Plans that exist at the PowerPoint level and theoretical operational concepts must not be confused with concrete capabilities that are able to meet current and future challenges. Further investments in aging designs like the F-16 and F-15, originally designed a half a century ago, simply fail to meet modern requirements. While these aircraft will remain an important part of the inventory out of necessity, their operational utility will diminish given they do not address the challenges that will increasingly dominate the security environment.
This leaves the F-22 as the nation’s keystone air superiority capability. Adversaries respect the aircraft and that is precisely why they are regularly deployed as a signal of resolve. If conflict erupts, F-22s will be at the forefront of operations. This places an extreme imperative upon funding Raptor upgrades to ensure they remain viable for years into the future. The most cost-effective way to increase the capacity of the F-22 force is to upgrade the 33 older block 20 F-22s used for training and test to full combat capability. This effects-based option would result in an additional squadron of F-22s for a minuscule fraction of the cost of attaining 5th generation fighter capacity any other way. For those who focus on cost, are they prepared to pay the price of not having the entire F-22 force at its peak potential? That bill would be measured in strategic objectives surrendered, significant force attrition, and lives lost.
Canceling the F-22’s production with half the military requirement unmet was a tragedy whose impact will be felt for years. However, that is runway behind us. What matters now is how we make the most of the F-22s we do have. Upgrading the older block 20 force of F-22s to full combat capability will deliver a very clear message to potential adversaries. It all comes down to real capability and capacity with the F-22s we possess. Let’s optimize that number. The security challenges of today and tomorrow demand nothing less.
David Deptula is a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general with more than 3,000 flying hours. He planned the Desert Storm air campaign, orchestrated air operations over Iraq and Afghanistan, and is now dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Power Studies. Douglas Birkey is the executive director of the Mitchell Institute, where he researches issues relating to the future of aerospace and national security.