The U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) has released a report that compares the F-22 upgrade path to that of legacy fighters.
It is alarming. It has some good points and it misses a few things.
The report brings into question the $9.7 billion dollars to be spent on the F-22 program for upgrades.
While the GAO doesn't bring up the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, it is critical to mention. More on that later.
GAO compares the F-22 against legacy aircraft that were fielded during the high-water mark of the Soviet threat. This saw development of the F-15, F-16 and F-18 at the end of the Nixon-era. These teen-fighters started fielding in active squadrons during the Carter and Reagan-era (of the three, the F-18 didn't show up in active units until the early 1980s). By the time the F-18 was fielded, the advanced tactical fighter (ATF) which is today's F-22, was only a 1981 requirement. And, the Soviet threat still existed.
In this time-frame, the Communist Soviet-run Warsaw Pact had a large amount of military hardware in Europe. North Korea and the Soviets were a threat in the Japan/S. Korea region. The Soviets had recently invaded Afghanistan giving them a better long-range reach to the Middle East. Taiwan was threatened, but not like today. For someone like myself that was around in that era (the formative years of my military service) the Soviet threat (big nukes or no) certainly was credible.
An ATF requirement was needed.
The recent GAO report states that it was an after-thought to add air-to-ground ability to the ATF. That idea needs some examination.
The purpose of the original ATF requirement which became the F-22 was to achieve air superiority. In order to do that, it had to survive not only enemy aircraft, but in the environment they would be found: near advanced surface-to-air missile designs showing up in the 1980's and beyond.
The performance of the ATF requirement gave the DOD options to add air-to-ground ability later. Today, the F-22A has tremendous growth room for add-ons.
The F-15 had real growth-room after an evolved strike eagle F-15E was made. The airframe designs between the F-15A/B, C/D, and E are quite different. The difference between the F-16A/B and F-16C/D are not upgrades so much as a new factory design. The F-16C/D is a response to A/B fatigue issues along with want of an evolved two-vendor power-plant and avionics. You can't just tack this stuff on to an A/B unless you want to... rebuild it which has also been done.
The Hornet family is also in a similar state. Here the A/B and C/D Hornets are a little closer but note the work that it took to rebuild F-18A to become an A+.
Also, the original F-16 and F-18 were born of a light-weight-fighter requirement. The idea was that a lot of affordable low-end fighters were needed to continue to face the Soviet threat. LWF was made to be flown X-amount of hours and thrown in the trash. No refurbishment.
In order to get to the E/F "Super Hornet", an entirely new design had to be performed. The Super Hornet is not an upgrade. It kinda looks like a Hornet with little commonality.
From what we know today, all of this is cheaper than an F-22. Make of that what you will based on your belief system. Yet, the F-22A still offers more growth potential than an F-15A/B, F-16A/B, F-18A/B.
In order to fix significant flaws in the F-35A,B and C, upgrading is not possible. The design is too flawed and heavy due in-part to the short-take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) requirement hobbling all variants. If the fan-base is so committed to this disaster, a new requirement for D,E and F will have to be found. Depending on how much courage industry and government have will determine if it is still labelled an F-35.
This is one of many cases where the F-35 team did not learn from the F-22.
For the F-22, if production had been allowed to continue, evolved and improved designs could develop. What kind of F-22A growth-room exists? There is space for right and left cheek AESA radars. These were kept off to keep costs down. There is the ability to put the F-35 EOTS on the F-22. Because, well, that is where that idea came from. F-22 specific EOTS/IRST was left off the F-22 to keep costs down.
A snapshot of F-22 development shows that, like almost all other military procurements things change. For instance the short take-off and landing (STOL) requirement for ATF was changed. In 1987, using a surrogate F-15 aircraft, it was found that take-off requirements for the ATF would have to be lengthened because of weight. For short landings, reverse thrusters were removed.
In comparing the F-22 to F-15, both had weight growth problems that were resolved by reducing internal fuel requirements. Will the F-35 see a similar fate with its serious weight problems?
Thoughts of giving the ATF/F-22 an air-to-ground requirement was the right thing to do. As it turned out, the F-117 was not survivable against emerging threats. When the ATF requirement was drawn up, a red-force team determined that stealth for stealth's sake was not good enough for emerging threats. Super-cruise and extreme altitude was also needed to make firing solutions of enemy threats less effective. Note by this time the sub-sonic "stealth-fighter" F-117 was already being fielded as a black-project combat capability.
Today, the F-22 has replaced the F-117 as a kick-down the door power to hit various enemy fixed targets that contribute to an anti-access integrated air defense systems (IADS) and other high-value targets in anti-access scenarios.
The F-22 is the only aircraft with this survivability. This is important to consider since the F-35 Joint Operational Requirement Document (JORD)--the reason for the F-35 to exist--assumed there would be hundreds of F-22s to take out extreme threats for the F-35. Without enough combat coded F-22s, the F-35 JORD becomes obsolete.
In comparing the timeline of the F-22 to other aircraft, funding streams for the project were interrupted over its procurement. The final source selection between the YF-22 and YF-23 appeared right at the beginning of the massive downsizing at the end of the Cold War. Lockheed's F-22 concept won in April of 1991, but the Soviet Union, for some, the F-22's reason for existing, was dying. Various DOD officials and politicians painted a future threat picture of few and poorly maintained pieces of Soviet-era technology. The Joint Strike Fighter JORD was at risk years before it was signed off on.
F-22 funding and numbers were cut. Costs climbed. The classic death spiral. The original ATF goal was for 750 aircraft. As the ATF program took shape, this narrowed down to 650. In the 1990s as the F-22 this lowered even more. Defense leaders in the Bush II administration let this slide to today's number. When Gates ended the F-22 at its "program of record", the United States Air Force had a valid plan to have 380-some F-22s to support 10 deployment contingencies known as "AEFs" (Air Expeditionary Force).
Gates stated that the F-35 could be had at $77 million each and that in the 2020's we would have plenty of "5th-generation" fighters. Even if that is an effectively meaningless term best saved for marketeers.
Fielding of the F-22 from source selection in April of 1991 to initial operating capability in 2005 took almost 15 years.
How many years will it take to field the F-35? It won source selection in 2001. Will it see initial operating capability in 2016? This is doubtful. And, until just recently, the F-35 program has enjoyed consistent healthy funding and political support.
The DOD has burned up around $100B and counting to get 120 combat-coded F-22s and an F-35 program run into the ground. The jet that ate the Pentagon. Indeed.
How many evolved F-15, F16 and F-18s would that money have bought? It is a hard question because the concept that gave us today's F-35 was thought of in the 1980s Soviet threat; pushed as an affordable solution after the Cold War; committed to in a time of a healthy federal budget and now, for those that could not see the project management incompetence, is facing extinction.
The fact that we now have a perilous federal budget is after-the-fact.
How to fix things?
Restarting an evolved F-22 may be the only answer to keep a major and important aircraft maker (Lockheed Martin) from closing the doors on combat-jet production.
Any hope of saving America's air power deterrence capability cannot allow all that combat aircraft building skill to fold.
How do we deal with a failed F-35 program? By taking the nation's combat aircraft talent involved in this mess and re-jigging Fort Worth into an F-22 line.
This will also give us something much better than a 500 million dollar each long-range-bomber. F-22 production will give us a follow-on FB-22 (PDF) regional-bomber. Range; a high number of targets hit per day into anti-access threats; rinse and repeat. I have been an advocate for the FB-22 since the idea was first made public.
Air power deterrence.
Recently it has been in the news that F-22s have been deployed to the Middle East. Past deployments (including the ME) have shown that the later combat coded production examples of the F-22 can achieve 100 percent mission capability rates up to 30 days or more.
Why is that? Is it not a hanger queen?
Yes and no. A few examples:
Most of the systems in the jet are now OK. The engines stay on the aircraft for awhile before needed to be pulled. It was designed with a crew-chief in mind as far as maintenance process. Except that assumptions on the maintainability of this particular stealth skin design need help. The stealth-skin issues for early production lots and corrosion problems didn't work out so well.
First, corrosion. There are two kinds here with the F-22. The first is basic airframe corrosion. In stealth aircraft, you can't just cut a water drain hole anywhere you want on the jet like an F-15 and keep it stealthy. Work in progress.
The other corrosion is the poor design of the layers of low-observable (stealth) coating on the airframe. I have been briefed in-confidence by an engineer who has observed the program closely for years. The composition of these low-observable skin layers cause serious issues with moisture which leads to maintenance problems.
Lockheed Martin project managers were warned about these risks early-on. The rest is history.
Does this affect all F-22s? Early production lots are affected by the skin issue. A risk-mitigation project that involves different skin-coating methods is in progress. Like the corrosion problem, later production aircraft have seen the benefit of these changes.
The final verdict on all of this will be proof showing that enlisted people don't have to work 12-hour days in the low-observable skin refurbishment hanger located at F-22 bases. That crew-chief friendly design for the F-22 mentioned above assumed that only 5 percent of maintenance tasks require low-observable skin refurbishment. Open a panel for maintenance and depending on the task, the jet could go back to the low-refurb hanger.
This is where some of the high-cost per F-22 flying hour issues have come from. As of 2009, USAF claims a $19,000 per flying hour cost with the F-22. This is a blanket statement with no other details. A 2008 F-22 select acquisition report (SAR) shows that one F-22 cost $3,190,454 per year to operate and one F-15C was $607,072 to operate. Is this a typical example of how a next generation aircraft costs more to operate? Kind of. However, the F-22 takes on the mission of the F-15C and F-117.
The F-22 goes into the hanger at the unit level for scheduled second-level maintenance every 300 hours. This is about average for U.S. fighter aircraft.
The F-35 was designed with only 1 percent of maintenance tasks requiring low-observable maintenance refurbishment. The marketing people in F-35 happy-land doubled this to 2 percent after F-22 maintenance metrics were in the midst of post 2005 initial operating capability learning curve (that 12 hour-per-day F-22 L.O. refurb enlisted guy thing as one example). With today's F-35 design problems, I figure the high 90-percentile mission capability rates mentioned as a Key Performance Parameter (KPP) in the JORD are at this time, a distant dream. That, and the export-friendly nature of the F-35 marketing scam.
The most recent events with oxygen-life support system issues for F-22 pilots is most troubling. How resolutions to this problem play out over time will indicate the level of success.
So, are we to be alarmed that over the life of the F-22 program $9.7B in upgrades will be performed? This will make it an even more outstanding F-117 replacement; by even more orders of magnitude.
Today, we are spending $9B per year to procure F-35 mistake jets. They have no way to be upgraded to any worth. They are too weak to take on anti-access threats and too expensive to use for lower threats taken care of by current aircraft.
Over the last 20 years, our DOD leadership has much blame to take for the degradation of America's air power deterrence.
The F-22 as a concept, by itself, is not the major part of that problem.