411th Flight Test Squadron to flight test the NGAD: F-22 Raptor Combined Test Force at Edwards AFB has transformed into Air Dominance Combined Test Force to test NGAD Family of Systems

Naval Aviator involved in the ATF program explains why it’s time for the F-22 to be programmed for end-of-life, and replacement by the NGAD

By Dario Leone
Nov 25 2023
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F-22 Raptor retirement

As already reported, Speaking during the McAleese FY2022 Defense Programs Conference Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., Air Force Chief of Staff, said on May 12, 2021 that the US Air Force (USAF) will cut its fighter inventory from seven fleets to four, and the F-22 is not on his short list.

Asked to clarify, an Air Force spokesperson said Brown was thinking very long-term and in the context of “a very small fleet,” which will become increasingly hard to support, especially as it passes the 25-year age mark in 2030. The F-22 will “eventually” retire from the inventory, she said, noting the F-22’s likely successor will be the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD).

Some minor upgrades

In the meantime, will the Raptor get significant upgrades?

‘Some minor upgrades, but the next generation fighter is already in development. So, don’t expect much,’ David Tussey, former US Navy A-7E Corsair II who was involved in the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF), says on Quora.

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‘Sea story: I was in an A-7E squadron (VA-56) onboard USS Midway homeported in Yokosuka, Japan. It was 1986 and the USN A-7 (and F-4) squadrons were headed to transition to the new F/A-18 Hornet. We knew this was coming for several years. But like many plans, the transition schedule was lagging behind.

‘But the A-7 was quite a workhorse for the Navy, and the community was very outspoken for the ongoing role of the trusty Corsair.

‘(As a side note, the last USN A-7E squadrons (VA-46, VA-72) flew during Desert Storm in 1991, although the Hellenic Air Force flew them until 2014!)’

The A-7E precedent

‘So, there was good reason to try and keep the A-7E as viable as long as possible. And here’s what happened.

  • We got an upgraded ejection seat to improve survivability.
  • We got dual-radios, and eventually the Have Quick secure radios. Having a 2nd radio made a big difference in maintaining situational awareness.
  • We had an upgrade to the flight software that enabled Automatic Maneuvering Flaps. This feature automatically extended the leading edge flaps during high AoA maneuvers such as ACM and at target “roll in” with heavy ordnance. This improved both maneuverability and survivability.
  • We received an upgraded digital TACAN navigation receiver.
  • We received an Improved Digital Scan Radar. This made the ground mapping radar quite a bit better both for navigation and weapons delivery. It was a greatly improved radar.
  • We received new versions of the Operational Flight Program (OFG), i.e. software which improved functionality and added new weapons. Some new HUD modes also. Nice…
  • The biggest, most valuable new weapon clearly was the ability to employ the HARM anti-radiation missile. The HARM allowed for true stand-off attacks, and also was a terrific augmentation to the EW suite of the A-7 as the HARM seeker head was integrated into the cockpit displays.
US Navy A-7E Corsair II tanker pilot explains why air refueling at night is a challenge for a single-piloted tanker aircraft

The upgrades the Corsair II never received

‘Okay. You get the idea. The last A-7Es in the USN fleet received upgrades to improve safety, survivability, mission flexibility, new weapons, and safety-of-flight items. The last A-7E I flew was much more combat effective than the first one, and the HARM mission was very important well into in the late 80s and 90s.

What we did not receive was an improved engine, wing modifications to enable better aerodynamics, modifications to the intake lip to enable a higher top-end speed, fuel enhancements, structural modifications to increase “bring back” weight, and improved HUD modes.

  • Many of those modifications were incorporated into the experimental A-7F in 1989.
  • None of those enhancements made it to any aircraft in either the USAF or USN, or our allies.

F-22 crossroad

Tussey continues;

Why do I tell this story? Because I think the F-22, despite its capability, is at a similar crossroad.

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‘Here’s why:

‘The F-22 was designed for air superiority during the Cold War. Its primary mission was to achieve air superiority in Central Europe against a full invasion by the Warsaw Pact countries, i.e. the Soviet Union.

‘I was on the ATF program in the late 80s and this was the primary rationale for the program. And many of the ATF requirements, such as super-cruise, grew out of this mission.

‘As we now know, that mission evaporated nearly overnight in late 1989/1990 as the Soviet Union collapsed. Accordingly, SecDef Cheney truncated the F-22 program in the early 90s. There were other DoD priorities.

A 30+ year old design

‘So as sexy as the F-22 is, and as advanced as it is, the truth is it’s a 30+ year old design.

‘Some would even argue the Raptor is less capable, in all but a few areas, than the F-35. I would be one of those who would.

F-22A Print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-22A Raptor 192nd Fighter Wing, 149th Fighter Squadron, FF/04-4082 – Langley AFB, VA – 2014

‘AND the F-22 is hindered by having a small fleet of <200 aircraft making the supply chain quite expensive. (Shame that the US didn’t sell the F-22 to our allies, particularly Japan and Israel.)

‘And that also means there is a small fleet to pro-rate the R&D costs over. Ugh! And let’s admit it, the F-22 is very, very expensive to maintain.

Next Generation Air Dominance

‘So as unpopular as it might sound, it’s time for the F-22 to be programmed for end-of-life, and replacement by the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter. The NAGD program, as we’re told, is already well underway. (And not to mention the large number of F-35s that are entering service.)

‘So, in the meantime, while we wait for significant number of the NGAD to reach active duty squadrons (probably a minimum of five years away), the USAF still needs to manage their fighter aircraft inventory. And for now, that means lots of F-35s and some F-15EXs.

‘The F-22 will likely receive minimal upgrades, mostly focused on safety-of-flight and new weapons compatibility. These will most be software upgrades. There will be necessary “maintainability” upgrades to such things as the stealth coatings.

‘And so on, similar to the A-7 story I told.

USAF releases new concept art and details on Next Generation Air Dominance

Funds funneled to the NAGD program and the F-35

‘There may even be a “block upgrade” program should the NAGD program fall behind schedule. But I’m guessing it will be a minimal program, similar to the USN “Block III” F/A-18 Super Hornet upgrades. Very useful, but limited in scope and thus impact. And given the USAF F-15EX program, I would further doubt an F-22 block upgrade effort.’

Tussey concludes;

‘However, I do not foresee any significant enhancements to aerodynamic performance or overall combat effectiveness of the F-22. One reason is, of course, that the F-22 remains today the most formidable fighter aircraft in the world.

‘And undoubtedly, the USAF wants to maintain that position, but I believe significant R&D funds are more likely to be funneled to the NAGD program, as well as the F-35.

‘Regrettably, we’re not going to see an F-22B.’

Photo credit: Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway / U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin

F-22 Raptor model
This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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