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The Cost of Producing More Raptors; Congressional Study of the Potential to Restart the F-22 Program Declassified

The Obama administration’s cancellation of the F-22 Raptor fifth generation air superiority fighter program in 2009 has become perhaps the most controversial decision taken regarding the U.S. military in the 21st century. The fighter was developed to provide the United States Air Force with a fighter able to challenge the most capable air superiority platforms fielded by the country’s potential adversaries, which at the time of its cancellation included the Russiαn Su-30 and the Chinese J-11B heavy fighters. Naval and strike variants of the fighter were also planned to modernise U.S. naval air superiority and air to ground capabilities. While the F-22 was a formidable design, the world’s very first fifth generation fighter, upon its cancellation only 187 fighters had entered service – enough to meet just 25% of the Air Force’s requirements. None of the Navy’s requirements were met, leaving the service without an air superiority platform until today, while a strike variant, the FB-22, never passed conceptual stages. With the U.S. increasingly in need of capable air superiority platforms today, particularly in light of the induction of new elite air superiority fighters by potential adversaries including the elite Russiαn Su-35 and Su-57 and Chinese J-11D and J-20, which entered service since the Raptor’s cancellation, restarting production of the Raptor has frequently been considered to meet emerging challenges to American air superiority.

Numerous reports by a number of think tanks warned shortly before the Raptor’s cancellation that terminating production of the F-22 was a short sighted decision. Induction of a sixth generation heavy fighter to reinforce American air superiority capabilities is expected to take decades, and the fighter’s modernisation program has significantly stagnated since the termination of production. U.S. allies have also suffered, with Japan in particular having lost its Cold wαr era air superiority advantage entirely to the latest Chinese and Russiαn platforms – which Tokyo’s ageing F-15 fleet is wholly incapable of matching. With the implications of the Raptor’s cancellation increasingly clear and ever more serious as tensions between the U.S. and its potential adversaries escalated in the 2010s, from the Middle East to Eastern Europe, the Korean Peninsula and the East and South China Seas, a study was mandated by the U.S. Congress in 2016 for the Air Force to research what it would require to return the elite fighters to production. That study was completed in late 2016, and its findings remained classified until mid 2018. The study cost the government approximately $37,000 to produce, and gives some invaluable insights into the potential to restart production. With Lockheed Martin, the F-22’s developer, having in April 2018 offered to provide Japan with a fifth generation air superiority fighter, essential in light of the inadequacy of the F-35 light fighter for such a role, the capability for American air superiority fighters to return to production carries particularly significance.

The U.S. Air Force estimated that for the production of 194 additional Raptors, enough to meet just over half of its requirements, the total procurement cost would be between $40 and $42 billion, with the entire program costing a little more than $50.3 billion. Total non recurring start up costs for production over a five year period totalled over $10 billion in 2018 dollars, which included approximately $228 million to refurbish production tooling, $1.218 billion to requalify sources of components and raw materials, $5.768 billion to redesign four subsystems, and $1.156 billion in other associated “restart costs,” along with $1.498 billion in “additional government costs.” Two critical subsystems which would require a complete redesign would be the the AN/APG-77 radar and the F119 engine – neither of which remain in production today. Electronic warfare, communication, navigation, and Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems also required replacement or substitution. The study further noted that the initial unit cost for an order of 194 aircraft would be approximately $216 million, which would drop to around $206 million by the time the last Raptor left the production line.

The Air Force noted that while approximately 95 percent of production tooling related to the F-22 remains available, physical production facilities either no longer exist or are in use for other Lockheed Martin programs such as the F-35, its lighter fifth generation counterpart. The F-22 could however benefit from sharing components, supply chains and infrastructure with the F-35 to substantially reduce the program’s costs – much as the F-15 did with the F-16 in the fourth generation. An example is the F-35’s Pratt & Whitney F135 afterburning turbofan, closely derived from the Raptor’s F119, which could significantly reduce costs of restarting production of F-22 engines.

With Lockheed Martin able to rely on large numbers of exports of the F-35 to reduce unitary production costs, benefitting from economies of scale, the cost of restarting a production line for the F-22 could also decline significantly should the U.S. offer the Raptor for export – which would require the lifting of a congressional export ban. In light of recent perceived threats to a number of U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia, Japan and Israel which were the only three states ever sold the F-15C, the F-22’s predecessor, a ban could well be lifted and these states are all likely to be ready customers for the next generation air superiority fighter. With Russiαn and Chinese clients set to receive Su-57 and possibly J-20 fighters in the 2020s, and having already received platforms such as the Su-30 and Su-35 far surpassing the capabilities of the U.S. F-15, America’s prime air superiority platform currently available for export, exporting the F-22 could well be essential for the U.S. and its leading allies to maintain parity with potential adversaries. Alternatively production of a new air superiority fighter based on the F-22’s airframe, which makes use of a more modern computer architecture and improves on the shortcomings of its software systems, would provide the U.S. with a modernised Raptor in all but name which could circumvent congressional export bans and provide the U.S. Air Force and America’s allies with a fighter more capable of contending with emerging fifth generation air superiority threats.