The right airplane at the wrong time: Naval Aviator involved in the ATF program explains why US continues to upgrade and produce F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 but not the F-22

The right airplane at the wrong time: Naval Aviator involved in the ATF program explains why US continues to upgrade and produce F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 but not the F-22

By Dario Leone
Jan 17 2024
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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).

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

In the meantime, the US continues to upgrade and produce legacy aircraft (such as the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18) but not the F-22.

Why is that?

Continuing to upgrade and produce legacy F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 but not the F-22

David Tussey, former US Navy A-7E Corsair II who was involved in the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF), explains on Quora.

‘I was “cleared in” to the F-22 program when it was black (“Senior Sky”) in the late 80s. I was a Navy Commander serving on the staff of the Secretary of Defense.

‘The F-22 was designed as an air superiority stealth fighter to challenge the Warsaw Pact forces in Central Europe. That was almost the sole justification for that aircraft. And given the threat in the late 70s/early 80s, that was clearly viable. The F-22 would have been a real game changer in the Central Europe battle theater.

The most modern U.S. Combat Aircraft train together during Exercise Orange Flag
An F-35, F-18, F-16, F-22 and F-15 fly in formation

‘The original USAF plan was to purchase > 1000 of them. Really, I was in the budget meeting in 1986.

‘Then in 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed. The Warsaw Pact was no more. Furthermore, the military of the Soviet Union turned out to be largely a paper tiger. Overnight, the primary threat evaporated.

‘That event spelled the death warrant for the F-22 Raptor. It’s sole reason for being, it’s raison d’etre vanished nearly overnight.

‘Production had begun, but DoD decided to stop production quickly, and in my judgement rightfully so.’

A very small community of very expensive fighters

He continues;

Russian aircraft have become less aggressive toward US MQ-9 drones after the arrival of F-35 stealth fighters in the Middle East

‘That left a very small community of very expensive fighters that are now nearly 30+ years old. It’s simply not cost-effective to continue to invest in such a small fleet of aircraft with a somewhat limited mission. The cost of the upgrades spread over such a small fleet size are simply not cost-effective: in fact, the only upgrade going on is just a minimal effort to keep the F-22s viable until the NGAD comes online. That “upgrade” program was a hard-fought program.

The F-15, F-16, and F-18s are all represented with very large, multi-national fleets which creates economy of scales for operations and upgrades. And there’s no threat of a Soviet-style offensive anytime soon, although China is threatening.

‘At this point, it makes much more sense to invest in the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) aircraft which may or may not have already flown.

F-22 Raptor retirement: The right airplane at the wrong time

‘BTW, the cost of those 195 F-22s ended up being $344 million per airplane. Terrible…

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall reveals that the USAF Plans to buy 200 NGAD Fighter Jets and 1,000 Collaborative Combat Aircraft
NGAD (Lockheed Martin rendering)

‘With the fall of the USSR, the USAF had to undertake a major, major realignment of forces, missions, and acquisitions. Even they did not want to continue the F-22, but were kind of forced to. Even today, the USAF would love to retire the F-22, buy more F-35s, and move on to the NGAD.’

Tussey concludes;

‘And it’s not short sighted. The F-22 is stealth technology from the late 70s/early 80s. We’ve made major, major advances in stealth, materials, engines, and avionics since then.

‘And there’s been no conflict since then where the F-22 played a critical role. We should have stopped building any of them in 1990, and moved on to R&D for the next generation.

‘There is the airplane called the F-35, which is next generation stuff.

‘The right airplane at the wrong time.’

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

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

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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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