America’s F-22 Raptor is still widely considered the most capable and dominant air superiority fighter in the world, but as China’s J-20 production continues to ramp up, the F-22’s dominance now faces a significant threat. This threat isn’t necessarily in stealth or even aerobatic performance, but potentially in an even more important combat capability metric: volume.
The Raptor’s abbreviated production run, which ended in 2011 with just 186 airframes delivered, may have doomed the air superiority fighter to a short service life, but with the F-22’s replacement still to manifest, China’s air superiority advantage will almost certainly grow throughout the remainder of the decade and well into the 2030s. Even America’s other 5th generation fighter, the F-35, may not be enough to maintain a capacity advantage over the Pacific. While F-35 production in 2023 is expected to reach as high as 156 aircraft, this volume is distributed across more than a dozen national partners.
“Our commanders tell us that by 2025, the Chinese will have more fifth-generation stealth fighters on the front line than we do,” Senate Armed Services Committee member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said during a confirmation hearing Oct. 5, 2021.
THE F-22 REMAINS DOMINANT A QUARTER-CENTURY AFTER ITS FIRST FLIGHT
The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor has the unusual distinction of being both the oldest and the stealthiest 5th-generation fighter on the planet. Despite its sleek 21st-century appearance, the Raptor’s development roots actually reach all the way back into the 1980s, with its YF-22 prototype precursor first taking flight in 1990 and the first production-like Raptor reaching the sky in 1997 — 10 years before the first iPhone hit the market.
Despite entering service a full decade before any of its stealth fighter peers, the Raptor’s tiny radar return — said to be approximately .0001 square meters on enemy radar screens — is literally hundreds, if not thousands of times better than its foreign competitors in China’s J-20 and Russia’s Su-57. This incredibly low-observable design is coupled with massive control surfaces, a powerful pair of Pratt & Whitney F119 afterburning turbofan engines capable of producing a whopping 70,000 pounds of thrust under afterburner, and 2D thrust vector control all make the F-22 an air combat powerhouse. And while the Raptor has the chops for close-quarters combat, its powerful AN/APG-77 Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar and data-fusing onboard computers give it the means to take out enemy fighters long before they even know a fight has arrived.
The F-22 bridges the capability gap between hot rod Cold War dogfighters like the F-15 Eagle and futuristic data-fusing supercomputers that prefer to fight from a distance like the F-35. Its unique combination of power, aerobatic performance, stealth, and situational awareness make the Raptor the most feared tactical aircraft in the sky… but despite the Raptor’s impressive resume, it isn’t without weaknesses. The Raptor’s lack of infrared search and track capabilities and helmet-cued targeting limit its performance in certain kinds of fights, but these are shortcomings that — and may be — addressed in the current upgrade program that’s underway.
But one significant shortcoming upgrade programs can’t address is production volume.
THERE WILL NEVER BE MORE F-22S THAN THERE ARE TODAY
The F-22 may be an incredible performer, but the program’s cancelation after just 186 total fighters were delivered, and the subsequent cannibalization of its production line in favor of the F-35, means there will never be more F-22s built. This is a serious problem as the United States continues its transition toward deterring global competitors like China, which has one stealth fighter in active production and a second following closely behind.
In 2017, the U.S. Air Force commissioned a study into the projected cost of restarting F-22 production, which led to the daunting realization that producing 194 new F-22 Raptors would ring in at $50.3 billion in 2017 — which equates to nearly $63 billion today, or approximately $330 million per fighter. At this price point, the Air Force soon reasoned, it would be better off designing and fielding an entirely new fighter that leverages the technological advances made in the quarter-century since the Raptor first started flying.
While this decision makes sense, it also reaffirmed the fact that the total number of F-22 Raptors available for combat service can only decline as time goes by. The F-22 was designed for an 8,000-hour service life, in other words, each F-22 has 8,000 hours of flight time before the platform ages out of service.
Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, now dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, recently said that the majority of the F-22 fleet has yet to reach half of that figure in August of 2022. Yet, F-22 operations are likely to increase in the coming years as a part of deterrent operations aimed at both China in the Pacific and Russia in both Europe and the Middle East.
The production volume problem runs even deeper than that. While 186 F-22s were delivered, at least 32 of those jets were earlier Block 20 jets, which lack many of the systems required for combat. These aircraft are currently used primarily for training, though Air Force officials have expressed concerns over their value even in that regard – with an unnamed Air Force official recently telling Air and Space Forces Magazine “that the Block 20s and Block 35s are so dissimilar that pilots are acquiring bad habits in the older jets.”
The Air Force has repeatedly asked to retire these older, non-combat-ready Raptors only to be denied by Congress, which has since codified into law that no F-22 may be retired prior to 2027. The Air Force feels the $485 million per year devoted to operating these training fighters could be better allocated toward the development of the F-22’s replacement in the NGAD program, while Congress contends that doing so would force Block 35 combat-coded jets to absorb the wear and tear of F-22 flight training.
It is, of course, possible, to upgrade these Block 20 F-22s for combat service, but doing so would come at a high premium. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall recently described the cost of doing so as around $50 million per jet, or more than $2 billion in total. Lt. Gen. Richard Moore Jr., the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, is even less optimistic, saying it would likely cost $3.5 billion and take years to accomplish — which he contends would make little sense, as the Raptor is slated for retirement in the early 2030s.
When you subtract the Block 20 F-22s from America’s fleet numbers and account for the F-22’s readiness rate, which the Air Force reported as ranging from 50.5 to 50.8% between 2019 and 2021, it means the actual number of Raptors available for combat at a given time is likely fewer than 80.
CHINA HAS 200+ J-20S AND COUNTING
The most significant limitation China’s J-20 program has faced to date has been engine production. The aircraft was designed to fly using a pair of Chinese-developed WS-15 engines capable of providing a combined 80,000 pounds of thrust, giving the fighter a slight edge over the Raptor in terms of engine output. However, repeated delays in WS-15 development have forced China to leverage Russian-sourced AL-31 engines, and then later, a Chinese equivalent known as the WS-10. In some later-production J-20s, these WS-10s also include 2D thrust-vector control like the Raptor’s, which China has openly stated is intended to help close the capability gap between the two fighters.
In April of this year, however, China announced that the WS-15 is ready for mass production — which could mean not only an increase in the J-20’s performance, but an ability to increase the rate of production as well.
In July 2021, the South China Morning Post reported that China had approximately 150 J-20s in service, and by November 2022, that figure had grown to at least 200. While these numbers may only be good for back-of-the-envelope calculations, it does suggest that China has been producing J-20s at a rate of at least 50 per year. So, even if China’s total number of combat-ready J-20s may actually sit closer to America’s F-22 figures today, it’s evident that the total number of J-20s in service will soon eclipse the number of F-22s, if it hasn’t already.
BUT TAKE THESE NUMBERS WITH A BIG GRAIN OF SALT
Herein lies one of the greatest challenges associated with comparing fighter fleets across nations: the availability of information. Despite a deeply flawed national media enterprise, the American press remains free of formal governmental manipulation. In fact, many defense-focused news outlets trade almost entirely on holding the Pentagon’s feet to the fire, exhaustively reporting on production delays, technical setbacks, budget overruns, failed policies, and toxic leaders.
While not necessarily always productive, this is actually vital work for America’s defense enterprise. The media’s ability to shine a light on defense failures or shortcomings, on bad decisions or leadership, is an essential stopgap against both complacency and corruption. Ultimately, it’s America’s transparency and subsequent media coverage that helps make up the difference between America’s functioning — if often troubled — defense apparatus and the sort of corruption that’s become so apparent within the Russian military, for example.