Want More F-22s? Here’s What That Would Take

Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors line up on a runway in 2006.

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Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors line up on a runway in 2006.

Congress is inquiring about restarting the Raptor production line, cold for almost five years now.

U.S. lawmakers have asked the Air Force about the possibility of restarting production of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, an endeavor that would be far more complicated than signing a check and flipping the lights back on.

In its review of the 2017 defense authorization bill, the House Armed Services Committee asked service leaders to look into what it would take to build 194 new Raptors, enough to finally meet the Air Force’s long-stated requirement of 381 jets. HASC chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and others say the world has changed since 2009, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates halted the F-22 program at 187 aircraft in order to double down on the multirole F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. For one thing, the stealthy, supercruising Raptor was expected to keep the U.S. as undisputed king of air-to-air combat for decades. That turned to be overly optimistic.

“We’ve seen both Russia and China develop airplanes faster than was anticipated,” Air Force Lt. Gen. James Holmes, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a March 8 hearing.

Meanwhile, the prospect of conflict with those two nations seems less far-fetched than it once did. Indeed, the F-22 made its first two operational deployments to Europe — last August and again this month — in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and aggressive maneuvers in Eastern Europe.

“I don’t know that [more F-22s] is the answer, but in my town hall meetings, I get asked about this,” Thornberry said Thursday at a Defense Writers Group breakfast. “I think enough members were getting the question that the decision was made, see what [the Pentagon] says about that,” he said. “The answer may well come back: ‘It doesn’t make sense.’ I don’t know, but we’ll ask the question.”

Part of the answer will surely be: easier said than done.

Finding the Money

First, the Air Force would need to find a boatload of money that it doesn’t have. The service is already buying fewer F-35 Joint Strike Fighters than it wants to because of the budget crunch. It also has plans to buy aerial refueling tankers, stealth bombers, radar planes, search-and-rescue helicopters, jet trainers, a new Air Force One, and ICBM-security helicopters. “If the F-22 is restarted, it will likely come at the expense of some of those other aircraft programs,” said Todd Harrison, a Pentagon budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Two years before Lockheed shuttered the F-22’s final assembly line, a RAND study calculate that restarting production to build 75 new jets would cost $17 billion. Adjust for inflation and boost production to 194 Raptors, and the total price tag likely approaches $30 billion.

“We’re talking tens of billions of dollars to buy these jets, at the exact time that the Air Force has an aircraft modernization bow wave that’s just incredible,” Harrison said. “This would just add right on top of the peak years of the Air Force’s bow wave.”

Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s budget is capped through 2021, meaning Congress and the next president would have to break and reforge the existing budget deal to free up the money.

Perhaps the U.S. could defray the cost of restarting production by selling some F-22s abroad? Japan, Israel, and Australia all have wanted the Raptor at one time or another. There’s a hitch, however: it’s illegal to sell the jet abroad. That law was written by Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wis., who retired in 2011 after more than 40 years in Congress. Still, the lawmakers who requested the study don’t see the Obey Amendment as a show-stopper; they are asking the Air Force to assess the potential market.

Reengineering the Plane

A second problem, or perhaps an opportunity, is that the new Raptor would need new electronic guts. The original electronic specifications are long obsolete; the plane first flew in 1997 and entered service in 2005. Indeed, the Air Force is now amid a $1.5 billion effort to bring all 183 existing F-22s up to a single software and hardware standard.

Redesigned, more modern electronics could breathe new life and longevity into the F-22. First off, the prospective new Raptors won’t start arriving for five years or even longer, meaning that to build them to today’s standard means they will be half a decade old coming off the line. For another thing, much of the internal hardware is dated, so it will have to be created from scratch anyway.

Some have suggested equipping the new F-22s — call them F-22Bs — with the more advanced computer processors and radar of its younger cousin, the F-35.

“The F-35 is an amazing mission equipment package in search of a good air vehicle and the F-22 is an amazing air vehicle in search of a good mission equipment package,” said Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group. The twin-engine Raptor is, for example, far more agile than the Lightning II.

Perhaps the F-22B could even be fitted with the secret jet engine being built by Pratt & Whitney for the new B-21 stealth bomber, allowing it to leap a generation of power plant technology, Aboulafia said.

“There’s a chance for a migration of technology to come full circle,” he said.

While the guts of the F-22 would need an upgrade, the plane’s structural design is sound, Aboulafia said.

Finding a Place to Build it

Then there’s finding space to build the plane and its almost innumerable specialty components. Lockheed, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney were the three big F-22 contractors, but there were more than 1,000 F-22 suppliers from firms in 44 states, according to the Congressional Research Service. Lockheed said 25,000 jobs were directly tied to the project.

The factory floor spaces that once assembled the world’s most complex fighter jet have long since been given over to newer projects. In the Seattle factory that used to build Raptor wings and aft fuselages, Boeing now does commercial work. Pratt, which built its final Raptor F119 engine in 2012, now overhauls the engines at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.

Final assembly took place at Air Force Plant 6, nestled in the northwest corner of Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia. Lockheed now uses the space is now used to build C-130J, make center wings for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and overhaul massive C-5 Galaxy cargo planes.

After the final F-22 was delivered to the Air Force in early 2012, all of the tooling and structures were packed up and sent to the Sierra Army Depot, in northeast California near the Nevada border.

Even if new space could be found and the tooling set up once more, it would take considerable effort to assemble and train a new workforce to build the F-22. Lockheed took care to capture as much knowledge as possible before the line closed. “Every F-22 assembly process has also been videotaped, photographed, recorded, and stored,” the company wrote in 2012.

But Harrison said that only goes so far. “If you have videos, that will help, but you lose a lot of your learning-curve efficiencies,” he said. “You’re basically starting over with a new workforce.”

All in all, if the Air Force study recommends restarting production, and somehow the money is found, the design updated, the supply chain rebuilt, the production spaces reconstituted, and a new workforce trained up, the new Raptors would not arrive until after 2020.

“It would be almost a decade shut down by the time this would actually get going again,” Harrison said.

But for true believers, national security is worth the time and trouble. T. Michael Moseley, the former Air Force chief of staff who locked horns with Gates over the F-22, still believes the service needs more Raptors. “I believe a restart is absolutely required to be able to modernize/recap the [Air Force],” he said.

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