For a dozen years, thousands of Hawaiian maintainers have supported, and hundreds of pilots have flown, the F-22 Raptor fifth-generation aircraft from Hawaii Air National Guard’s 199th Fighter Squadron and the Air Force’s 19th Fighter Squadron at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam’s strategic Pacific location. But, as reported by Air Force Magazine, in recent months, a tinge of sadness and uncertainty has radiated through the F-22 support team and pilots as US Air Force (USAF) leaders called for the retirement of 33 of the 186 F-22s in the fleet to make way for investments in next-generation fighters.
Although none of Hickam’s F-22s, which represent 20 percent of the combat-capable platforms, would be affected, the signal from USAF leaders is clear to all those who fly and maintain the Raptor: The F-22 will eventually be phased out.
“There’s nothing that compares to it,” said Hawaii Air National Guard Master Sgt. Ryan Morita, superintendent for the power support systems of the 154th Maintenance Squadron that supports the F-22.
“Look at it—it just looks like it’s bowed up. It’s ready to go,” Morita told with a hard laugh to Air Force Magazine. Morita has served in the Guard for 31 years and supported the F-22 ever since it arrived on Jul. 1, 2010.
Arguments that defense dollars should be set aside for newer generation F-35s did not phase the Hawaii native as he made the long walk from the workshop to the sunshades, his smile beaming ear to ear the whole way.
“But, this is the faster one, and this is the better one. This is the more agile, and it’s a more powerful one. This, this is the dominant one,” he said, pointing to the F-22’s two engines, compared to the F-35’s one, and the F-22’s larger weapon-carrying capacity. “It’s sad.”
Commander of Hickam’s 19th Fighter Squadron Lt. Col. Paul Lopez was more contemplative when asked about the proposed retiring of 33 Raptors.
Before answering, he allowed a lengthy pause and looked down, his arms akimbo.
“My first thought was that thank God we have more Raptors to fly,” he said, jokingly.
“I would say that, you know, that decision is being made based on strategic vision that leadership has,” he added, because “… with anything in any organization, in order to advance the agenda, the vision, … sometimes a divestment needs to happen in order to create space for something else.”
More than $4.1 billion is set aside to upgrade the remaining F-22s over the next five years according to the fiscal year 2023 defense budget now before Congress. In recent weeks, first the Senate, then the House pushed back on Air Force plans to reduce the F-22 fleet.
As already explained, on Jun. 20, the USAF’s plans to divest its oldest 33 F-22 Raptor fighters met with a sharp rebuke from the House Armed Services Committee, which moved instead to mandate the service maintain the full Raptor fleet and upgrade the older planes to the newest configuration in its version of the 2023 National Defense Authorization bill.
USAF sought to retire the early F-22s, currently rated for training use only because they are expensive to maintain and are increasingly mismatched to the combat-coded versions, reducing their value as training platforms. The roughly $1 billion cost to upgrade those jets was not affordable, Air Force officials said.
But the HASC chairman’s mark would not only block plans to retire the aircraft, but would also direct the service to upgrade all its F-22s to at least “Block 30/35 mission systems, sensors, and weapon employment capabilities.”
“When we let the Air Force curtail the program back in 2010 at 187 airplanes at the time, they told us that the training capacity would always be available to meet contingency requirements, if and when needed, along with the 234 F-15Cs,” a HASC staff member, who explained that ensuring every F-22 in the inventory is combat capable is the bipartisan, consensus view of the committee, told reporters. “Now that the Air Force is retiring all their F-15Cs, they’ve cut the buy in half for F-15EX, [the Next Generation Air Dominance program] has slid further to the right than what they originally told us, and now they want to reduce their F-22 capacity. We think there’s significant risk in meeting future air superiority requirements. And so we’re holding the Air Force accountable to their commitment to have the training-coded jets combat capable.”
The bill includes exceptions allowing the Secretary of the Air Force to retire F-22s and go below the minimum of 186 fighters if any given aircraft is deemed “no longer mission capable and uneconomical to repair,” such as after an accident.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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