The United States Air Force is not in great shape. For starters, officials estimate it has 500 fewer pilots than it should ideally have. Plus, many of the planes those pilots would be flying aren't in great shape. The newest jet, the F-35, is continually hammered for schedule, cost, and technological issues. The slightly older F-22 is considered the best fighter jet in the world, but it was purchased in relatively small numbers. And the aging F-16 and F-15 counterparts will need a lot of expensive upgrades to remain relevant.
What the Air Force lacks in performance, it won't be making up for in quantity. Today it has only enough money to keep 55 combat-coded fighter squadrons operational (as opposed to the 134 squadrons they had back in 1991). Only half of those 55 are considered ready to go toe-to-toe with a peer opponent like Russia or China. According to a recent report from the RAND Corporation, the US hasn't had the capability to achieve 24/7 air dominance over China in a potential Taiwan Straits conflict since 2010 — something the US has been able to do in every conflict it has fought in the last quarter century.
Another report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies backs up the RAND report, arguing that in the Asia-Pacific region, the "balance of military power [is] shifting against the United States."
So how has the world's most lavishly funded air force gotten itself into such a pickle?
Way back in the day, when it was all about the US and Soviet Union battling over the fate of the human race, things in the high-tech killamajig industry followed a predictable pattern. One side would release a new piece of equipment, like a fighter or ship or whatever. Then the other side would learn about the new capabilities (real or imagined) of that equipment and come up with clever ways to beat it. Then they would incorporate those clever ways into their own next round of equipment, and the cycle would repeat.
The F-15 Eagle has been the US Air Force's fourth-generation fighter jet for the last few decades and was due to be replaced by the new fifth-generation F-22 Raptor. If things proceeded according to script, those several hundred F-22 aircraft would then be replaced by a fleet of brand-new sixth-generation fighter jets after a few decades, and so on.
But instead of continuing to hold up its end in the battle for the future of humanity, the Soviet Union collapsed 25 years ago, ending the Cold War. Meanwhile, the US eventually found itself hip-deep in ugly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that carried with them approximately zero likelihood of slugging it out head-to-head with a top-flight Russian or Chinese fighter.
So, in 2009, after years of criticism directed at the F-22 for being a shockingly expensive aircraft suited to a Cold War threat that had disappeared decades ago, then–Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and newly elected President Barack Obama decided to cap production at 187 aircraft. In 2012, production was shut down.
Unfortunately, a mere two years after the last F-22 rolled off the line, Russia executed the Great Crimean Heist in Ukraine and basically rebooted the Cold War. Meanwhile, China tried shoplifting the majority of the South China Sea and threatened to shoot anyone who had a problem with it. All of a sudden, the Pentagon is looking around and wishing it had a lot more top-notch fighter jets.
The Air Force's newest jet, the F-35, is still being hammered in the press. The F-35 was never built or intended to be a pure air superiority fighter; it's a multi-role aircraft that can shoot down other planes, but it doesn't specialize in it.
This all raised a question — why not turn the F-22 production line back on and start making more? The answer is, because that's one of those ideas that sounds perfectly doable in theory, but really sucks in practice. When a production line for something like the F-22 is shut down, it's shut down for good. For instance, even though the US built five Space Shuttles, deciding later to build a new one would have meant starting from scratch because shutdown involved scrapping tools, shredding documentation, and letting go of highly skilled workers.
When production of the F-22 was put on hold, lawmakers did tell the Pentagon to save as much of the stuff as they could in case the US decided it wanted more of them, though there are reports that everything is not nearly as well preserved as advertised. Regardless, the idea that the line could be restarted isn't beyond the realm of the possible.
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Lockheed Martin, the maker of the F-22, swears that it could get the production line up and running for a mere $200 million — though it doesn't say how much producing planes would cost. RAND suggests that restarting the line would cost about $560 million. That is a lot more. RAND also says that when you throw in the cost of 75 new aircraft, the total cost would be a cool $17 billion. That is really a lot more.
Roughly speaking, according to RAND, the first F-22 jets to come off the production line could run a bit shy of $200 million (in 2016 dollars) in "unit flyaway cost," which is basically the price of the plane itself and a portion of the tooling and machinery needed to make that plane. If production hadn't ever been shut down, however, those 75 jets would have cost roughly $150 million a pop, using the same measure.
Right now, the Air Force is saying that they're totally over the F-22 and want to focus on the new hotness, a sixth-generation replacement with the astonishingly bland name of Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter. It was concerns about cost that put the F-22 in hot water to begin with, and a newer jet with even fancier stuff is not likely to be cheaper. Nevertheless, engineer and scientist types are getting all excited about a host of new technologies that they hope to see in a sixth-generation Fighter Jet of Tomorrow. Hypersonic speed that makes it impossible for air defenses to intercept, on-board lasers to fry incoming missiles —really neat and probably enormously expensive stuff.
It's reasonable to assume that all those new bells and whistles will probably cost a fortune and end up pushing deployment of a sixth-generation fighter closer to 2030. If that's the case, the only way the US will have enough aircraft to meet demands is by revamping the fleet of increasingly elderly fourth-generation aircraft like the F-15, which could be 60 years old by the time a new replacement hits the skies.
The Air Force is aware of this potential pitfall. During a modernization hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lieutenant General James M. Holmes responded to these concerns, stating that, along with brand-new designs, the Air Force would be looking at adapting existing jets and doesn't plan to include any major new technological developments in its next fighter. This return to evolutionary weapons development, rather than hunting for revolutionary breakthroughs, has already been seen in the Air Force's new bomber, the B-21, and the Navy's Virginia-class submarine.
Folks have learned a great deal about stealth and made vast improvements in electronics since the F-22 was being designed back in the 1990s. So, if the US is thinking about restarting F-22 production, it couldn't hurt to spend a couple years upgrading the electronics, avionics, and stealthy bits. (The precedent for this was Ronald Reagan's restart of production of the B-1 bomber as the upgraded B-1B.)
This all sounds like a pretty reasonable deal: Upgrade the plane using the benefit of experience and new technology, write off a lot of the previous costs of the airplane to drive down the new sticker price, and voila! A brand-new top-end fighter jet to counter advanced Russian and Chinese jets.
However, if the Air Force restarted F-22 production or went to an upgraded F-22, it would almost certainly suck all the available funding away from development of a true sixth-generation fighter. And the longer the sixth-generation jet takes to produce, the more time enemy counter-stealth technology will have to erode the F-22's stealth advantage.
So the Air Force has three options: It can keep its ancient F-15s in the air a while longer with some upgrades until a brand-new replacement jet comes online. It can restart production of the existing F-22 to fill the gap until the next plane is ready. Or it can start production of an upgraded F-22.
And all of those alternatives suck in their own special ways.
Restarting the F-22 production line or upgrading it will delay the next-generation fighter, and in a world where stealth will be a less and less dominant technology, delaying the sixth-generation fighter is a lousy idea. But trying to focus on getting a new sixth-generation fighter and putting the F-22 to bed means the US could find itself at a severe disadvantage, pitting revamped but still ancient F-15s against newer, more modern Russian and Chinese jets for the next two decades.
At the margins, there may be ways to combine capabilities of aircraft like the F-35 and F-15 to make the F-15 more effective and make up for some of the shortfalls against modern Russian and Chinese aircraft, but that's a Band-Aid, not a proper solution.
So the Air Force is faced not with solutions, but with varying degrees of disappointment. Perversely enough, it may turn out that the most expensive decision made in the F-22 program was the decision to stop spending money on it.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
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