FREDENBURG: Our F-22 Raptors Should Be Upgraded, Not Retired

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Mike Fredenburg Contributor
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While the Air Force has backed off from its plans to retire all F-22 Raptors by 2030, it is still pushing to retire 32 of the “older” F-22s that will require more money to upgrade. This would be a mistake.

Thankfully, it currently looks like Congress will block the Air Force from retiring 17 percent of its already small F-22 fleet. 

The problem with retiring F-22s right now is that the Air Force does not have planes that can truly replace them. Also, the move to retire the F-22s comes just as they look poised to finally start delivering key capabilities that Lockheed Martin promised nearly two decades ago.

To say that the F-22 that was approved for full-rate production in 2005 did not live up to the hype when it came to reliability would be an understatement. Due to bugs and other issues, the situational awareness it was supposed to deliver to its pilots also failed to materialize. But nearly 20 years and tens of billions of dollars later, many of the issues that plagued the F-22 have been fixed. 

I recently talked to an Air Force pilot who revealed that the previously bug-ridden avionics and super sophisticated displays have largely been fixed, and that the F-22 is now providing its pilots with fantastic “Star Wars” level situational awareness fed by the Raptor’s unmatched combination of active and passive sensors.

In theory, the unreliable, heat-crippled F-35 has more software-enabled capabilities that may or may not provide significant combat capability, but when it comes to passive sensors, the F-22s larger and more numerous wing-embedded sensors provide it with a much greater ability to track and monitor electromagnetic signals than the F-35 or any other fighter can boast. This unmatched ability to passively detect and track targets without having to use active, potentially detectable radar, helps the F-22 maintain its status as far and away the world’s stealthiest fighter.

Speaking of stealth, the F-22’s frontal radar cross section of 0.0001 square meters is 10 times smaller than the F-35’s. And the Raptor’s stealth, unlike that of the F-35, is all aspect, making it effectively more than 10 times as stealthy. The F-22 is also much faster, more maneuverable, has the ability to supercruise and (unlike the F-35) was designed from the ground up as an air superiority fighter. And with its new stealthy, conformal tanks the F-22 also has considerably more range than the F-35. 

Another advantage is that its large airframe and two powerful engines provided a solid foundation for billions of dollars of upgrades over the last 20 years or so.  And the Air Force has many more upgrades planned, including AI-enhanced capabilities that will ensure the F-22 remains one of the most technologically advanced fighters in the world for decades to come. In addition, the Raptor’s AN/APG-77v1 radar, while older than the F-35’s AN/APG-81 radar, is bigger and more powerful. And because the F-22, unlike the F-35, has adequate cooling for its radar and avionics, it can make better use of its radar. 

Ironically, a key reason that the Raptor is a great candidate for upgrades is that its high cost of operation has resulted in F-22s accumulating an average of only just over 1,200 hours of flight time per plane. This means the average F-22 airframe should have decades of useful life left.

The F-22 is still far from perfect, however, and maximizing its value will require upgrades focused on lowering its cost to fly and improving its availability. Chief among the upgrades will be to reduce the F-22s very high cost per flying hour by reducing the cost of maintaining its stealth coatings. This hefty price tag is a major factor in the Raptor’s poor availability rates and accounts for at least 50 percent of its cost to fly. Bringing costs down would require stripping off the old crumbling stealth coatings and applying a new, more rugged coating of radar absorbing material, as well as upgrading/modifying maintenance access panels/hatches so they no longer damage the stealth coatings when opened.

If replacing the F-22s stealth coating proves to be too costly, given that roughly 90 percent of the F-22s stealth comes from its shape and only about 10 percent from its radar-absorbing coating, it might make sense to simply remove some or all of the stealth coatings. Theoretically, this would result in a slightly less stealthy plane that would still be among the world’s stealthiest while being far more available and costing a whole lot less to fly and maintain.

Another cost-effective upgrade would be integrating the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Systems currently used by the F-16, F-15 and F/A-18e/f fighters. 

We can argue over the specific upgrades. What’s important is that the Raptor not be retired and scrapped just as, thanks to billions of dollars and years of upgrades, it’s finally realizing its potential. 

Moreover, while there are only roughly 180 F-22s in the USAF inventory and they haven’t really been proven in air-to-air combat against peer enemies, its reputation as being by far the world’s best superiority fighter makes the existing fleet an effective deterrent that even peer competitors will be reluctant to test.

What’s more, despite some claims to the contrary, the F-35 is no substitute for the F-22. The Raptor is vastly more capable when it comes to air-to-air combat and was originally tasked to be an F-35 protector

Finally, the idea that we should retire F-22s in order to dump their operational costs into funding the development of the Next Generation Air Dominance Fighter (NGAD) is a really bad idea, as we have absolutely no guarantee that the NGAD will be successful. Furthermore, it is incredibly unlikely that a program as complex and risky as the NGAD will deliver aircraft capable of delivering reliable combat power by 2030.

Keeping all our F-22s operational until the super expensive NGAD fighters prove they can do what their developers are promising makes eminently good sense. 

Mike Fredenburg writes about politics and defense matters, with an emphasis on defense reform. He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and a Masters in Production Operations Management and has written for the Epoch Times, National Review, the San Diego Daily Transcript, the San Diego Union-Tribute and other outlets.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.