In recent years, the U.S. Air Force has sought to retire a portion of its F-22 Raptor fighter jets, encountering resistance from Congress. While the apparent contradiction of the military advocating for reductions in armament while lawmakers push to maintain the fleet might seem perplexing, the complex truth lies in the tumultuous history of the fighter jet.
The genesis of the F-22 Raptor dates back to the 1980s when the U.S. decided to develop a cutting-edge, fifth-generation air superiority fighter amid rising tensions with the USSR.
However, it wasn’t until 1990 that the YF-22A prototype first took flight, and by then, the projected need for 750 units for the Air Force, along with an additional 550 for the US Navy, appeared doubtful.
Despite escalating development costs reaching a staggering $70 billion, the production of the aircraft proceeded. However, only the Air Force received the new jet, as the Navy chose to upgrade the F/A-18F/E Super Hornet instead. The Air Force, facing budget constraints, ultimately ended up with a mere 187 F-22s due to progressive cutbacks.
The initial versions of the fighter, designated as Block 10, lacked advanced functionalities and the capability to employ precision ground-strike weaponry, essential for 4+ generation aircraft. The Block 20 units were hindered by the absence of an upgraded AN/APG-77[V] radar, limiting the detection of ground targets. It wasn’t until the Block 30 production in 2006-2007 that the jet achieved full functionality, and production ceased in 2011.
Although there was interest from countries like Australia, Japan, and Israel, an unfavorable legal landscape hampered the export potential of the F-22, leaving the U.S. with a relatively small fleet.
Currently, the Pentagon aims to retire 32 of its F-22 Block 20 units due to their lack of full combat capability and the high maintenance expenses they incur. In an era where cost-effective fighters are in demand, the F-22 commands an operating cost of an astonishing $75,000 per flight hour.
Decommissioning these 32 jets would result in annual savings of $485 million, or $15 million per aircraft. These funds are earmarked for the development of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD), the projected sixth-generation fighter.
However, Congress remains resistant to the decommissioning plans, insisting on maintaining a total fleet size of 1,112 aircraft. The standoff between Capitol Hill and the Pentagon is poised to persist during annual budget negotiations.