The F-22 stealth fighter program is long dead, but the debate over its legacy rages on.
Introduced in 2005, Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor was—and remains—one of the world’s best air superiority fighters. But despite the Raptor’s inarguably impressive performance, the F-22 program encountered no shortage of controversy during its lifespan.
In its earliest days, the program was met with consistent political resistance. The complaints ran along two, interrelated fronts: onerous costs and limited usability concerns. Part of the problem is that there is no universally agreed-upon way to calculate the F-22’s price. The most popular metric is the fighter’s “flyaway cost”—namely, the production cost of a single additional model. Those estimates have ranged anywhere from $110 to $180 million during the 2000s. For a sense of scale, the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin have recently negotiated a flyaway cost of $80 million per unit for the F-35 fifth generation fighter. The F-22’s critics prefer to cite the total per-aircraft cost, which encompasses both research and development (R&D) as well as production outlays; that tally comes out to a less flattering $350-380 million.
Then there is the use-case problem: with the end of the Cold War, skeptics argued that the F-22’s air superiority role is seemingly wasted on asymmetrical adversaries who lack sophisticated airpower capabilities. As previously covered by The National Interest, these simmering concerns erupted in the late 2000’s with a public spat between the Air Force and the Pentagon. Then- Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued that the F-22 had no meaningful role to play in the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts—in a blow to the F-22 program, Gates fired senior Air Force officials who continued to insist on additional F-22 procurements. The Raptor’s fate was sealed when, with President Obama’s support, the Senate voted in 2009 to stop further F-22 production.
The Raptor likely isn’t coming back, but the government’s decision to axe the program has had its fair share of detractors. A sizable subset of defense commentators and some government officials have argued that the procurement cancellation was shortsighted. “We don’t have enough F-22s,” said Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle. “That’s a fact of life. We didn’t buy enough.” “You’re going to need the Raptors” for a high-end fight, he added. “So you’re still going to have to do that and we’re going to do it with the 180 or so F-22s we have.”
As noted by Defense Writer Tyler Rogoway, the final tally of 187 F-22’s—of which only about 125 units sit in a deployment-ready state—makes it difficult to fulfill robust rotation commitments across Pacific, European, and Middle-Eastern theaters. Further still, the F-22’s defenders argue that Gates and his allies killed the Raptor program based on a wrongheaded threat assessment. China rolled out its J-20 stealth air superiority fighter markedly sooner than Gates’ mid-late 2020’s estimate, and Russia’s Su-57 air superiority fighter is already entering service. The Raptor’s adherents have likewise raised the possibility that F-22 costs would have dropped if the procurement program was allowed to grow and mature.
In a sense, the Air Force now has the worst of both worlds. The F-22 wasn’t completely stricken off the roster, but the procurement program was gutted to such a degree that the Air Force’s remaining F-22s are simply incapable of fully addressing America’s high-end airpower needs. At a time of growing great-power competition and intensifying regional threats, that may prove to be a costly mistake.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.