Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are trying to block U.S. Air Force plans to retire F-22 Raptor fifth-generation fighters from service in 2023.
U.S. Air Force plans have been met with strong opposition from both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, which have pressed to not only keep the small fleet at full strength but also to invest heavily in upgrades.
The Pentagon has issued its most recent budget request, demanding a whopping $773 billion in overall funding for the fiscal year 2023. This is about $31 billion more than the current fiscal year’s total for the Department of Defense.
The proposed defense budget for Fiscal Year 2023 contains a range of major changes to the US Air Force’s airpower, including the elimination of 150 aircraft. This covers outdated A-10 Warthogs, F-22 Raptors, T-1 Jayhawks, and KC-135 Stratotankers.
In the planned 2023 budget, the Air Force would also procure fewer F-35A fighter jets and HH-60W Jolly Green II combat rescue helicopters. Furthermore, It would also seek to increase financing for the B-21 Raider bomber, the Next Generation Air Dominance program (NGAD), and the Airborne Warning and Control System, which would replace the aging E-3 Sentry.
The F-22’s status as the only Western air superiority fighter is less than half a century old, with its predecessors the F-14 and F-15 having first flown in 1970 and 1972, as well as its position as one of just three fifth-generation fighters, fielded at squadron level strength worldwide alongside its cheaper single-engine counterpart the F-35 and its Chinese rival the J-20, has made plans for its early retirement controversial.
The U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Brown Jr. announced on May 12, 2021, that the future fleet would be built around the cheap and light F-16, the new and heavy F-15EX which is a modernised variant of the Cold War-era F-15 Eagle, the stealthy F-35, and the upcoming Next Generation Air Dominance Fighter designed to have sixth-generation capabilities.
Assistant Budget Secretary Major General James Peccia subsequently highlighted in March 2022 that the F-22’s extreme maintenance costs, as well as the very high costs of upgrading the airframes, made it favorable to begin retiring Raptors in 2023. 18 percent of the fleet was to be retired that year, with the remaining airframes to be phased out entirely by the early-mid 2030s.
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The F-22s were set to be retired while the Air Force increased funding to purchase new F-15s, which was seen to signify the F-22 program’s failure to develop a viable successor to the Eagle which has seen a post-service entry production run well over ten times as long.
But the HASC chairman’s mark, released June 20, 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.”
The House committee draft goes further than what the Senate Armed Services Committee included in its version of the NDAA, calling in that bill for no F-22 retirements without “a detailed written plan for training F-22 aircrew while avoiding any degradation in readiness or reduction in combat capability.”
In a background briefing, a HASC staff member told reporters last week that ensuring every F-22 in the inventory is combat capable is the bipartisan, consensus view of the committee. A second staff member called preserving the jets “risk mitigation.”
“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,” the staff member said. “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 a significant risk in meeting future air superiority requirements. And so we’re holding the Air Force accountable to their commitment to having the training-coded jet’s 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.
The Air & Space Forces Association praised the move in a statement, noting that building fighter capacity is a priority for building up effective combat air power. “AFA is gratified that lawmakers see the need to protect these world’s greatest fighter jets from being retired prematurely,” the statement said. “The Air & Space Forces Association could not agree more that modernizing them to the most advanced configurations is one of the most cost-effective means of rapidly adding to USAF combat capability.”
The House committee will meet on June 22 to mark up its version of the NDAA. Once the measures clear their respective committees, they must be approved by the full chambers and then reconciled in a conference committee.