American fighter pilots (air force, navy, and marine) are largely in agreement that, while the F-22 is a superior air-to-air fighter, the new F-35 is a better, if still flawed, all-round combat aircraft. A lot of this has to do with technology. The F-35 is a more recent aircraft, entering service a dozen years later than the F-22. Fighter pilots, who tend to be keen connoisseurs of aviation technology (many being university trained in aviation tech) note that the F-35 is actually using a new generation of tech, as much of the F-22 stuff dates back to the 1980s and 1990s. This accounts for some of the tech updates the F-22 has received since it entered service in 2005. But the basic design and composition of the F-35 is a generation ahead of the F-22. As a result, the F-35 is cheaper, more effective (in terms of tech), easier to maintain, and designed as a fighter-bomber.
This last item is important for combat pilots, because they note there has been little air-to-air combat in the last few decades but smart bombs (especially the GPS variety) have become cheaper, more effective, and reliable and that has meant more calls for air support from ground troops. The F-22 is strictly air-to-air, and despite heavily publicized efforts to give F-22s ground attack capability, the F-22 has not yet experienced combat. The smart bomb revolution also means that far fewer aircraft are needed and the air force can’t justify sending in the F-22 when there are so many available aircraft that can do the job a lot cheaper. So fighter pilots looking forward to a hot new ride tend to favor the F-35 rather than the F-22.
American fighter pilots do see downsides with the F-35. They believe the manufacturer and proponents promised too much and that the F-35 will never be able to deliver. There is a lot of doubt that stealth will work as promised and the shape restrictions on the F-35 (to make stealth possible) limit what the F-35 can do.
There are some attractive aspects of the F-35, especially because it comes in three distinct flavors. The vertical take-off F-35B is a 27 ton aircraft that can carry six tons of weapons and will enter service in two or three years. In vertical takeoff mode the F-35B has a range of 800 kilometers. The U.S. Air Force will get its 31 ton F-35A in 2016 or 2017. This is the cheapest version, costing about $154 million each. The U.S. Navy version (the F-35C) will arrive in late 2019, and cost about $200 million each (same as the F-35B). This version has stronger landing gear to handle carrier landings and components that are more resistant to corrosion from constant exposure to salt water.
The F-35 has been delayed many times in the last decade and there is growing talk of cancellation. Orders have already been cut and the manufacturer is under a lot of pressure to get this new stealth aircraft into service. It’s still being debated how many F-35s will actually be produced. The U.S. Air Force assumes 3,162, but the Department of Defense is not so sure that many will eventually be built. Worst case, there will be more than ten times as many F-35s as F-22s. Most (about 60 percent) of the F-35s built will be used by foreign nations.
Last year the 187th, and last, F-22 fighter was completed. This last aircraft was sent to a squadron in Alaska which lost one in an accident two years ago. 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.
That is unlikely, as Congress passed a law forbidding the export of the F-22 fighter. Three nations (Australia, Japan, and Israel) 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 that would then build more than 200 of them.
The F-22 has a 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 up to 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 intended the F-22 to be 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 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. During that time many American fighter pilots believe the stealth advantage will be lost due to new technology. China, Russia, and the Europeans will continue developing new combat aircraft designs and the appearance of unmanned fighters would change the situation most dramatically of all.