US Congress has requested senior-level members of the US Air Force to explore the possibility of restarting production lines for the F-22 Raptor, arguably the most advanced fighter aircraft in existence today. This could potentially be the solution the US military is looking for with regards to its perceived fighter gap, especially with foreign nationals closing the technology gap rapidly with the development of their own next-generation fighters.
The F-22’s initial production run was ordered shut down in 2009, churning out a mere 187 Raptors by 2012, while the original procurement plan listed a total buy of over 750 Raptors, which would have replaced the Air Force’s aging F-15 Eagle stocks en masse. Because of the limited buy, which was drastically scaled down over the years before production was terminated, the Air Force has invested billions of dollars into extending the lifespan of its F-15s, which currently forms the backbone of its air superiority fleet. There’s only so much that can be done to keep the Eagles relevant, however, especially with China and Russia attempting to build advanced 5th generation fighter aircraft of their own (including models for mass export).
The Raptor hasn’t yet had its chance to face enemy fighters in air-to-air combat, but it does have a fantastic track record at various Red Flag exercises in Nevada, where it routinely faces off in dissimilar air combat training against the best allied nations have to offer. Its super-maneuverability, provided by thrust vectoring on its twin P&W F119 turbofans, along with advanced sensor fusion and powerful radar, give the Raptor incredible advantages in the air over any adversary. Its all-stealth design makes it even harder to detect and kill. But air superiority isn’t all the Raptor’s good at. The F-22 has proven itself as a multirole fighter, and has seen combat action over Syria and Iraq within the past eleven months, engaging in airstrikes against Daesh (ISIS) as part of the American contingent supporting Operation Inherent Resolve.
That being said, the F-22 is still an old aircraft. By the time it was pressed into service in 2005, technology (at least in the Western hemisphere) had already caught up with the F-22 and had progressed beyond, resulting in some of the tech present on the F-35 Lightning II, another product of Lockheed Martin. Restarting the Raptor line would necessarily mean improving the F-22 beyond what it is today. The Raptor currently uses outdated computer systems from the 1980s and 1990s, which, if replaced with more modern equipment, can give the Raptor even more of an edge than ever before. The possibility exists to port over technology used on the F-35 Lightning II to the F-22, including the unique Electro-Optical Targeting System which enhances pilot situational awareness exponentially.
The Air Force will be required to deliver its findings in the form of a comprehensive report to Congress by the end of this year, including projected costs, mission requirements, and an investigation into how the F-22 will solve the Air Force’s fighter gap while preserving American aerial supremacy. Of course, this doesn’t confirm that the Raptor production line will be restarted, especially anytime soon. Upon the shuttering of the F-22 line in 2012, jigs and production tooling were stored, along with digitized and physical copies of manuals for parts manufacturing in the event that more Raptors would be built, or at the very least, more parts produced. However, finding these carefully-stored tools and equipment have proved to be incredibly difficult at times. Top-ranking Air Force officers were hesitant to speak positively of the potential for a Raptor production restart, citing sky-high costs as being the prohibiting factor.
With the Air Force recently announcing that it has temporarily shelved its plans to design and build a singular 6th generation replacement for both the F-15 and the F-22, improved F-22s could possibly be the answer to the branch’s problems. Mass production of the aircraft could drive down costs significantly, especially if current technologies are utilized in the development of a newer upgraded Raptor. Exporting the Raptor to allied nations would further bring down costs, but this is currently banned by an act of Congress; that’s not to say that the act can’t be overturned, though. All in all, restarting the F-22’s production line is still a topic worthy of research and exploration, and it could prove to be a winning factor in aiding America’s quest to preserve its aerial supremacy capabilities worldwide.