Warplanes: The Last F-22

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December 19, 2011: The 187th, and last, F-22 fighter was completed on December 13th. This last aircraft will be sent to a squadron in Alaska which lost one in an accident last year. The manufacturer is not going to scrap or sell off the tools and equipment used to produce the F-22, but will store the stuff for a while in the hope that production may resume eventually.

Congress passed a law forbidding the export of the F-22 fighter but three nations (Australia, Japan, and Israel) still sought to buy some. Efforts to change the law have failed. At one time there was a similar prohibition to the export of the F-16 and that law was changed. One reason for the law was the fear that F-22 technical and operational secrets would fall into the hands of a hostile power. China has acquired at least one F-16 from Pakistan, Russia was able to acquire an F-14 from Iran, and during the Cold War the United States got possession of several Russian aircraft (including a MiG-25) flown in by a defector. There is a chance the F-35 could end up in enemy hands, even with efforts to prevent unauthorized technology transfer, but the technology loss would not be as great as losing an F-22.

The F-22 has performance that is far superior to that of any other aircraft in service, which is why several foreign air forces would like some. The combination of speed, advanced electronics, and stealth technology has created such a decisive advantage that F-22s are often matched up against as many as six F-15s to ensure their pilots face a challenge during training. So why is the F-35, with somewhat lower performance, getting all the export orders?

The first reason is price. The F-22 costs up to $200 million each (without even counting the huge R&D costs). The F-35 costs less than half as much (although that edge is eroding). This is one reason the U.S. is pushing exports of the F-35. This is why many more F-16s were exported, compared to the F-15. In any event, the F-35 will outclass a Rafale, F-15E, or Eurofighter, but not the F-22. The U.S. Air Force is using the F-22 as part of a high-end/low-end mix with the F-35, much like the F-15 and F-16 were the combination in the 1990s, only the F-22/F-35 combination will be much harder to detect and defend against.

The enormous edge of the F-22, and its usefulness as part of a high/low mix, can be a decisive advantage in many situations. That could cause problems. Israel might use F-22s for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities and one might be lost. That would be an intelligence disaster of the first magnitude. Japan has had problems in the past in protecting secret U.S. military technology.

The U.S. Air Force saw export sales as a way to keep the F-22 production line active, giving it more time to persuade Congress to allow more to be built for the U.S. That did not work. Despite the high cost of the F-22, Russia is developing the similar T-50, and China the similar J-20. But neither of these aircraft is as capable, or as expensive, as the F-22. Neither of these aircraft is in service. The F-22 began development in the late 1980s, first flew in 1997, and entered service in 2005. The F-22 is expected to remain in service for at least 30 years. And for much of that time the F-22 will be the best, if also the least numerous, jet fighter on the planet.

 


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