On April 20th, the United States (US) House Armed Services Committee’s (HASC) panel on tactical aviation received considerable attention and mainstream press coverage when they directed the US Air Force to examine and provide a report by 1 January 2017 on the cost of restarting the F-22 Raptor production line.
Since the premature halting of Raptor production line in 2011, numerous military and civilian leaders have derided the decision. It seems HASC has provided the Air Force an opportunity for a “do-over” and reverse the decision of then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to halt production at only 187 operational airframes. Of that number, 183 remain in service.
In 1991 the Air Force selected the Lockheed F-22 as the winner of the Advanced Tactical Fighter competition over the Northrup/McDonnell F-23. The program was initially designed to produce 749 aircraft to replace the F-15C Eagle.
In 1997 Congress slashed the F-22 program, limiting the production to 339 airframes. In 2003, that number was revised back up to 381, a number the USAF stated was the minimum needed to provide ten operational F-22 squadrons, one each for the Air Force’s ten Air Expeditionary Forces, plus additional aircraft for testing, training, and attrition.
Cost overruns and production delays made the F-22 a political target, and in 2009, Secretary Gates directed closure of the F-22 line. The last of the 187 operational Raptors came off the Lockheed-Martin assembly line in Marietta, Georgia in 2011. The line was shuttered and tooling and excess parts were placed in storage in case it was determined at a later date that the line would need to be restarted.
Anti-Access / Area Denial (A2/AD): Coming to a Theater Near You
A2/AD environments are built and deployed by potential adversaries to prevent the US and its allies from engaging in a given conflict (Anti-Access), or if they do, severely restrict their freedom of movement in that conflict (Area Denial). Advanced fighters, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), electronic warfare equipment, counter-space and counter-cyber capabilities all contribute to the “denied environment” that is emblematic of an A2/AD environment.
Initially many thought A2/AD was simply a term used to discreetly describe China’s growing military capabilities. However, A2/AD is not simply constrained to China; Russia has developed military capabilities that have created A2/AD environments as well. A2/AD is simply the deployment of advanced capabilities designed to prevent, hinder, or halt US air operations.
Russia and China have recently shown the ability to rapidly deploy “mini-A2/AD” environments to regional hotspots. After annexing the Crimean Peninsula, Russia quickly deployed an S-300 modern, long-range (MLR) SAM (NATO Designator: SA-20 GARGOYLE), and front-line 4th Generation FLANKER fighters to the peninsula. These deployments created an A2/AD environment on the Black Sea that may have been designed to deter the US and its allies from becoming involved militarily in the region.
More recently, in the fall of 2015 the Russians sent a large fighter and fighter-bomber contingent to Syria to conduct pro-regime air operations. When Turkey shot down a Russian fighter-bomber, Russia deployed its newest operational MLR SAM, the S-400 TRIUMPF (NATO Designator: SA-21 GROWLER) to Syria within days of the shoot-down. The Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, General Philip Breedlove stated these deployments were a Russian effort to establish an A2/AD environment in Syria.
Early in 2016, as multi-national tensions over disputed territory in the South China Sea increased precipitously, China deployed its own indigenously produced MLR SAM, the HQ-9, to Woody Island, a small land mass in the Paracel Islands claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Then, just months after the HQ-9 deployment, a Department of Defense (DoD) official confirmed China sent 16 J-11B FLANKER fighters to the island, a deployment unprecedented in size. Russia and China have shown the willingness and capability to rapidly deploy advanced fighter aircraft and SAMs to areas in which they want to restrict access or prevent US freedom of operations.
The development of A2/AD environments are not restrained to Russia and China. Both countries have shown a willingness to export advanced military hardware to nations that are not friendly with the US. This April, Iran showed off components of S-300 equipment, reportedly the first shipment of what will eventually be four SA-20 systems Russia sold to Iran. US military planners can no longer think of A2/AD as a peripheral threat, as A2/AD environments are springing up throughout the world in areas of increased tension.
Campaign planners must make survivability in an A2/AD environment a central priority in their planning efforts. It is in this area where the F-22 can provide huge dividends.
HASC used the proliferation of advanced capabilities and the possibility of military operations within an A2/AD environment as justification for requiring the Air Force to examine the possibility of restarting the F-22 production line:
“In light of growing threats to U.S. air superiority as a result of adversaries closing the technology gap and increasing demand from allies and partners for high-performance, multi-role aircraft to meet evolving and worsening global security threats, the committee believes that such proposals [restarting the F-22 production line] are worthy of further exploration.“
F-22 in an A2/AD Environment
What is it about the F-22 that makes it uniquely suited to operate and survive in an A2/AD environment? From the start, the F-22 was built with stealth in mind, the aircraft is designed to fly high and fast, and present a tiny radar signature to airborne and SAM fire-control radars. Additionally, the aircraft utilizes an avionics suite that is reportedly capable of actively and passively finding, identifying and geolocating threats on the ground and in the air.
Sophisticated algorithms within the aircraft fuse data from the individual sensors and create a consolidated and correlated threat picture, which is then presented to the pilot, a process known as sensor fusion. Stealth and sensor fusion give the Raptor unprecedented situational awareness of the battlespace, and air-to-ground capabilities inherent in the Increment 3.1 upgrade are likely to give the F-22 unequaled capabilities among fighters to survive in an A2/AD environment.
In addition to its own capabilities, the Raptor acts as a force multiplier for other aircraft in a force package. In 2015, the Commander of Air Combat Command, General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, talked about the F-22’s role as an aerial quarterback, using collected information to provide an overarching air picture to other aircraft: “The F-22 can suck up information from everybody, [the F-22 is doing] extraordinarily well in making sure other airplanes are aware of what’s around them and, in cases where they need to, direct them so they stay out of any potential threat.”
The F-22 was designed to operate in A2/AD environments, and Air Force leaders have raved about the performance of the platform in Syria, the first time US air power has had to operate in an A2/AD environment. Why does the US need additional F-22s, given the large numbers of F-35 on the horizon? Isn’t theF-35 designed specifically to survive in A2/AD environments? Absolutely, it is. The F-35 was built a generation after the F-22 and shares many of the stealth and sensor fusion capabilities of the F-22 built into the initial design.
That said, the Lightning II lacks the maneuverability, speed and altitude of the F-22, and is incapable of carrying as many missiles internally as the F-22. These aircraft were always designed to be complementary in a “high-low” mix, like the symbiotic relationship of the F-15C and F-16. The US must keep procuring the F-35; it is vital for the re-capitalization of the Air Force’s front-line fighter fleet. However, the planned mix of aircraft will not meet future contingency requirements. Of the remaining 183 operational Raptors, only 123 are combat-coded. This is simply not enough to provide air dominance protection for multiple strike packages that would be required in any large-scale conflict.
Paying for the F-22B: One Man’s Proposal
Re-starting the F-22 production line will not be cheap. The Air Force has been given seven months to come up with the exact number, but Fortune magazine made a quick “WAG” (wild-ass guess, in the military’s parlance of our times): “Generously allowing for economies of scale, it’s fair to say that buying nearly 200 more F-22s would cost well more than twice that $17 billion [the cost for 194 more F-22s when the line was halted in 2011].”
Using Fortune’s $35 billion WAG as a baseline, one can quickly see major issues with finding the funds to restart the line and build the number of Raptors operationally needed by the Air Force. Assuming HASC recommends reopening the Raptor production line, and the next Congress and the next President can agree to a budget that funds the process, F-22 production will begin to ramp up in the early 2020s, at exactly the same time the B-21, F-35 and KC-46 Pegasus are in high-rate production.
Throw in the fact that the USAF is attempting to recapitalize the E-8 JSTARS and EC-130 COMPASS CALL fleets, and build a new fighter trainer, and procurement dollars look to be extremely tight in that period. Tough choices will need to be made, and a decision to reopen the Raptor line and purchase nearly 200 new F-22s will require tough budgetary tradeoffs.
Here are three proposals to offset some of the costs associated with restarting the Raptor line. While each has its own degree of difficulty, partial success of any of the propositions is worth the effort. My WAG of a plan has four major components:
Slow F-35A procurement for the USAF and defuse any per-unit price increases by ramping up delivery of F-35As to international customers. Accelerating foreign F-35A deliveries ensures the number of F-35As coming off the Lockheed-Martin production line remain consistent with current projections, preventing a spike in per unit cost that could scare off international customers and put at risk the total USAF purchase of 1,763 F-35A airframes. This would require a great deal of negotiation with our international partners, including requiring them to modify their current spending projections. But with rising tensions in the Pacific and elsewhere, perhaps our allies would welcome a chance to accelerate their own F-35A initial operational capability.
Second, the US should allow export of the F-22B to our closest allies. HASC opened the door for this option when they tasked the Air Force to look at “opportunities for foreign export and partner nation involvement if section 8118 of the Defense Appropriations Act, 1998 (Public Law 105-56) prohibiting export of the F-22 were repealed.” In the past, Australia, Japan and Israel were very interested in purchasing the Raptor.
The fighter landscape in each of these nations has changed; Australia and Israel have signed contracts for the F-35, and Japan recently flew its indigenous design for a stealthy 5th Generation fighter. Signing an F-22 sales agreement to any of these nations, especially without impacting current F-35 procurement plans would be extremely difficult. However, success in even one of these nations could help amortize the cost of reopening the line over a greater number of aircraft, keeping per unit costs more reasonable. Additionally, export of the F-22B would allow the US the benefit of achieving cost savings that develop from quantities of scale, even if the US bought a relatively small number of fighters per year.
Third, and most painfully, my plan would require the retirement of the F-15C on a 1:1 basis with F-22Bs reaching operational status. The Eagle is the most successful air superiority fighter in history (104:0 air-to-air kill ratio makes a pretty persuasive argument), and its retirement will be a sad day for thousands inside and outside the active duty Air Force. However, by the time the theoretical F-22B reaches operational status the youngest F-15C airframe will be more than 50 years old, and ready for its retirement from the force. It must be noted that my plan would not allow for premature retirement of the F-15C fleet, these airframes could only be retired as they are replaced by the newest Raptors. This would prevent a further USAF fighter gap, and would provide a ready and trained force to pilot the new F-22s.
The Air Force must treat this acquisition as a total force initiative. Considering the majority of remaining F-15C squadrons are in the Air National Guard (ANG), the 1:1 replacement of the F-15C would send new F-22B airframes directly to the Guard. The ANG should therefore assist with procurement, modernization and sustainment. This would undoubtedly require complicated budget machinations, but the opportunity for new-build 5th generation fighters could be very enticing for the ANG.
Would these three efforts be enough to pay for 194 Raptors, while the Air Force is procuring 80-100 B-21s and 1763 F-35s? Probably not, but that is not a reason to not try. The F-22 is vital to the Air Force’s ability to survive and defeat emerging threats and A2/AD environments for the next two decades (at least). Air Force and DoD leaders, as well as Congress, should make every effort to find the means to reopen the Raptor line and preserve US Air Dominance for decades to come.