The F-22 Raptor is arguably the most expensive fighter the US Air Force has ever deployed operationally, costing more to buy and being more expensive to maintain and fly.
With low-observables stealth, supercruise (sustained supersonic flight without afterburner), high rates of agility, data fusion and enhanced manoeuvrability, the US Air Force (USAF) considers the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor to be its first filth-generation fighter. Winner of the prestigious Collier Award, this aircraft is arguably the most effective air dominance asset in the arsenal of Western air forces and certainly of NATO member states. Fully integrated with many allied aircraft, with which it operates, it is capable of enhancing the survivability of less stealthy fighters, attack or electronic warfare types, and it is one of the few US military products to be prohibited from export.
And if all that sounds like the text of a sales brochure, consider this. As explained by David Baker in his book Fifth Generation Fighters, the F-22A is arguably the most expensive fighter the Air Force has ever deployed operationally, costing more to buy and being more expensive to maintain and fly; limited in operational capability because it requires a large suite of ground support equipment; restricted from data sharing with some existing allied combat aircraft and questionably inferior when it comes in a close-in dogfight because it has fewer weapons I and, very surprisingly. is less agile than some of its Russian contemporaries.
Sorting out the pros and cons of modern combat aircraft is a slippery process and there are few constants among a plethora of shifting data-sets and uniquely configured comparators. No two combat simulations are comparable and there are situations where a Eurofighter Typhoon can outperform a Raptor and other scenarios where the Typhoon is toast.
Under the original contract, Lockheed was to produce nine single-seat, two two-seat and two ground test F-22 aircraft of what was finally determined in December 1990 as Configuration 638 and would change very little over time for what was expected to be a production run of 750 aircraft. Lockheed had invested $675 million of its own money, a value worth $1.5 billion today, anticipating a large production run and foreign sales. But the Soviet Union collapsed just as the aircraft was about to begin pre-production development.
Redefined, the threat changed dramatically and the Air Force was unable to sustain this anticipated production buy, expected to commence in 1994. In 1996 production had been cut to 648 and a year later slashed to 339, reduced to 277 in 2004 and to 183 in 2006. An additional four aircraft were added to the production run in 2008. Eventually 195 aircraft were produced, of which eight were test and evaluation airframes, the last delivered to the USAF on May 2, 2012. By this date the manufacturer had itself gone through unanticipated metamorphosis. Lockheed procured General Dynamics Fort Worth Division in 1993 and with the acquisition of Martin Marietta become Lockheed Martin in 1995.
Any hope of selling the aircraft collapsed when it was placed under federal law prohibiting its export to any foreign power, despite interest from several countries, even offering to buy this more expensive fighter rather than the F-35. Japan and Australia expressed a preference for the F-22 and Israel looked closely at the Raptor but chose the F-35 on price and the unavailability of its first choice. It was said by some Congressional leaders that Israel would have been the only country ever likely to have been granted approval for the F-22 but then only of a ‘de-rated’ variant.
The total cost of development and testing, added to the procurement cost of 195 aircraft, put the programme at around $108 billion, making each aircraft around $340 million without adding pre-production costs. But the procurement price of a specific aircraft is hard to quantify when non-recurring development budgets are included but the average tic cost per flying hour (C/FH) is more easily calculated.
An F-15C Eagle costs almost $42,000C/FH compared to just over $32,000 for an F-15E Strike Eagle, less costly because it is a later model and more economic to operate. An F-16C Fighting Falcon, however, costs a mere $22,500 because it is newer, albeit an early variant. But an F-22A still costs more than $68,000 per hour. The F-22 is saddled with a low production run and higher maintenance and flying costs simply because it has more that needs all expensive support infrastructure.
By comparison, an F-35A is likely to settle down around $32,500C/FH compared with a $25,500 for the F-16C, which is still bottoming out on flight and maintenance costs as refinements are introduced and more efficient practices set in. If total development costs are added, the unit costs of procurement are uniquely skewed to the specific aircraft in question and made virtually useless for comparison due to the unique nature and functionality of each type.
For all these reasons and because of the advance of counter-stealth systems the USAF does not intend to keep the F-22 Raptor beyond around 2030. However it will continue to upgrade the aircraft to keep it relevant against the toughest threats until the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) system is fielded.
Fifth Generation Fighters is published by Mortons Books and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force