Warplanes: F22 Gets an End Date


March 12, 2024: The 36-ton F22 is basically a stealthy air superiority fighter which can also operate as a bomber. Bombing missions are handled by cheaper, and just as capable for bombing, aircraft like the F16 and F15. Because of its extraordinary performance characteristics and stealth, the F22 can perform bombing missions previously taken care of by the now retired F117 and currently by the 29-ton F35. The most dangerous bombing missions are attacks on enemy air defense systems. Once those defenses are damaged, less stealthy aircraft can go in with less risk of getting shot down. The F22 was also, for a time, the most effective air-to-air fighter available.

The F22 has internal bomb bays, to enhance stealthiness and can carry two, half ton, smart bombs, or eight 114 kg SDB Small Diameter Bombs internally, in addition to a pair of air-to-air missiles. If fewer bombs are carried, six air-to-air missiles can go in the four internal bomb bays. Using the external hard points, which makes the aircraft more visible on radar, an F22 can carry about four tons of bombs and missiles.

The F22 had the most advanced radar and electronic warfare gear of any jet fighter until the F35 recently entered service. The F22 was too expensive for producing in large numbers. When you include the cost of research and development, each F22 ended up costing over $400 million. For pilots in combat, it's money well spent but you can have a lot more $60 million F16s, $100 million F15s and $110 million F35s that collectively do what the F22 does at much less cost. Per flight hour, operating costs of the F22 are also more than twice what it costs to put F16, F15 and F35s into action. The F22 requires considerable downtime to maintain its exterior stealth coating.

The F22 became a rare specialist aircraft because it can perform so many different missions and do them more effectively than any other aircraft. Unfortunately, there were only 186 of them and they are wearing out. Originally there were to be 750 F22s but that was more than the Air Force budget could afford, or needed to deal with its proposed Russian competitor, the stealthy Su57 5th generation air superiority fighter. The Su57 was late, very late in development and did not enter service until 2020, fifteen years after the F22. Only sixteen Su57s were built, was never very reliable and has not been seen in action much at all.

China also had competition for the F22 and Su57 with its J20 5th generation fighter which entered service in 2017. It wasn’t until 2022 that the Chinese solved a frustrating problem with production of reliable and powerful engines for the J20. This allowed mass production of the J20 to proceed. For nearly a decade the primary obstacle to mass production has been the unreliable locally developed WS10 jet engines. By 2022, after three years of effort, improved models of the basic WS10 appeared; the WS-10C for the J-10, the WS-10B3 with thrust vectoring for greater maneuverability and the WS-15 which had super cruise. By 2022 there were over a hundred J-20s in service, all with one of the three WS-10 engine models. Most of the new aircraft were the J-20B model using the WS-10B3 or WS-15 engine. Over the next few years all existing J-20s will be equipped with the WS-15 engine.

In 2022 some of these active-duty J20Bs were spotted. In nid-2022 China conducted air and naval military training operations around the island of Taiwan. The Chinese sent a number of their J20 stealth fighters aloft armed with air-to-surface and air-to-air missiles carried externally, degrading its stealth capabilities. American and Taiwanese radars and 0ther electronic intelligence or ELINT equipment got a chance to test the stealth capabilities of the J20. China has been trying to develop world-class stealth fighters since the 1990s. A decade ago the J20 appeared, described as a true stealth fighter. It sort of was but eventually turned out to be close but still a work-in-progress. That was later confirmed when it was later confirmed that J20s flying near Taiwan were tracked by American and Taiwanese radars.

It wasn’t until 2020 that J20 officially entered mass production. This was not the original J20A that was prematurely declared ready in 2017, but a much-improved J20B. In 2018 China admitted that production of the J20 was stalled and the manufacturer confirmed the reasons why. The details were explained on state run television, in part to help recruit the skilled workers needed to produce the J20. There is a labor shortage in China, largely because of the three decades of low birth rates mandated by the one child per family policy. The Chinese aircraft manufacturing industry, for both military and commercial aircraft, was booming and workers able to fabricate and assemble components were in short supply. Building the J20 requires a disproportionate number of skilled workers. Parts of the fuselage are made of alloys which are particularly time-consuming to mold and then fabricate into complex structures. Many of the components come from Chinese suppliers who were still developing and perfecting their production capabilities. In general, the J20 required a lot of exotic components and supplies were tight. China also revealed that development of the J-20 has cost $4.4 billion as of 2018, and that the construction cost for each aircraft was $110 million. In addition to the manufacturing difficulties, there were performance problems with the prototypes and the six J20A production models turned over to the Chinese Air Force by 2018.

This came after a late 2017 announcement that the J20 had officially entered service. At that time, it was obvious, via aerial photos of the factory and air bases, that production of the J20 was not actually happening. The manufacturer had planned to build three a month initially but from mid-2017 to mid-2018 production turned out to have been zero. At that time there were apparently a dozen more in various stages of completion. By early 2018 it was known that there were several potential problems with J20 production, but the main ones had to do with stealth, as in the delicate materials on the airframe that make radar detection less effective. The other problem was the engines. In 2018 the WS-10Cs installed were a stopgap and not efficient enough to support super cruise, which meant going supersonic without using the afterburner.

China had persistent problems developing high-performance jet engines. China had been developing the more powerful and supercruise capable WS-15 engine since the 1990s, for a larger aircraft like the 37-ton twin-engine J20. Despite a lot of effort, the WS-15 was still not able to work reliably enough for active service, rather than a prototype aircraft. Officials confirmed rumors that a WS-15 exploded during a 2015 static ground test. That failure had been a secret, but when an engine this important fails by blowing up, the incident is difficult to hide. It also turned out that the WS-15 problems were less difficult to fix than those encountered with other components and the skilled labor shortage.

There was another reason for the early 2017 announcement that at least a dozen J20s had been delivered to the Chinese air force so a new fighter squadron could be formed. This information was exaggerated and released to help with export sales. At the time Chinese media was reporting that Pakistan had agreed to buy J20s. Numbers were not announced and there were still questions about how effective the J20 actually was. Pakistani interest in the J20 may have more to do with the fact that China is the only major-power supporter they have, their main supplier of weapons and, best of all, a neighbor. Pakistan could not afford many $110 million aircraft and China is not known to be generous with credit or discounts when it comes to high tech systems like this.

While China began offering its 28-ton J31 stealth fighter to export customers in 2014 as the FC31, it was not until 2017 that efforts were made to export the more advanced J20. Chengdu Aircraft Company, or CAC, built the J20 as well as the JF17 and J10. The JF17 is a joint effort with Pakistan and Pakistan is the main customer. J31s were not ready for mass production, in part because it has some of the same production problems as the J20 and China is deliberately putting more emphasis on getting the J20 into mass production.

The J31 had undergone a number of modifications, and the manufacturer is trying to develop a version that can fly from China’s new aircraft carriers. As of 2022 the 28-ton J31 was still in the prototype stage. It made its first flight in 2012, a year after J20. The stalled development was because it was being developed without government assistance, other than access to information of American stealth aircraft obtained by Internet based and other forms of espionage.

The J20 definitely had a head start on the J31. Before the originally scheduled J20 mass production could begin in late 2015, eight prototypes were built. There were at least two original J20A prototypes, and in 2013 a new J-20B prototype appeared that had several modifications and is estimated to have a max weight of 37 tons. By 2018 several more prototypes have been built along with at least six production models plus over a dozen stalled on the assembly line. All of these were built with the understanding that some major and time-consuming refurbishment might be needed once the WS-15 engine was ready for service.

Work on the J20 began in the late 1990s, and the Chinese went forward on the assumption that it could be 25 years or more before they had a competitive stealth fighter-bomber in service. The twin engine J20 first appeared to be about the same weight class as the non-stealthy American 30-ton F15C, but the production model was closer in weight to the F22. By comparison, the American F35A stealth fighter-bomber was a 31-ton, single engine fighter, while the twin-engine F22 was slightly larger at 38 tons. The Russian Su57 weighed in at 37 tons and its production is also stalled over technical issues. The Russians can make more powerful and reliable engines than the Chinese but are still having problems with their stealth coatings and electronics. Russia officially put production of its Su57 stealth fighter on hold and suffers from some of the same production problems as the Chinese.

While the J20 looks like the American F22 when viewed head-on, its overall shape, weight, and engine power is closer to the older, non-stealthy American F15C. In other words, the J20 is 20.4 meters long, with a wingspan of 13.5 meters. The J20 has about the same wing area as the F15C, which is about 25 percent less than the F22, which is a few percent larger than the F15 in terms of length and wingspan. Worse for the J20 is the fact that its engine power is about the same as the F15C, while the F22 has 65 percent more power. With the afterburner turned on, the J20 has more power than the F15C and nearly as much as the F22, but because an afterburner consumes so much fuel, you can't use it for more than a few minutes at a time. An afterburner also generates a lot more heat which makes an aircraft more visible to heat sensors. The J20B was designed to use super cruise with a powerful enough engine, joining the F22, Eurofighter, and Swedish Gripen as aircraft that can super cruise. The J20B appears capable of doing lots of engine-dependent things during tests or in theory that it has not been able to sustain in regular service.

The J20 has some stealth when it's coming at you head on, but from any other aspect, the J20 will light up the radar screen unless it has effective radar absorbing material on the exterior. For this reason, the J20 initially appeared to be a developmental aircraft, not the prototype of a new model headed for mass production. China soon made it clear that the J20 was indeed the basis for a new fighter and would go through as many design and shape changes needed to become combat ready. Based on subsequent Chinese warplane development projects, the J11 in particular, it was believed that the J20 had a long development road ahead of it. There were some obvious changes between the first and the later prototypes, but nothing all that drastic. It was surprising when the J20 was declared ready for service in 2017, but not so surprising when production was quietly halted because of unspecified problems. Yet the Chinese have been competent and relentless in developing complex technologies and there was no reason to believe they won’t get the J20 working. That has apparently happened and was confirmed as J20Bs showed up in operational J20 fighter squadrons. That finally took place in 2021. By early 2024 there are at least 250 J20s in service.

The J-20 was only the fourth stealth warplane to fly, the others being the American F22 and F35, plus the Russian Su57. The older U.S. F117 was actually a light bomber and the B2 is a heavy bomber. While the shape of the J20 confers a degree of invisibility to radar stealth, even more electronic invisibility comes from special materials covering the aircraft. It's not known how far along the Chinese are in creating or stealing data on these materials. China would most likely use the J20 singly or in small groups to seek out and attack American carriers. For the J20 to be capable of that, it will need radar and defense systems to provide stealth on a par with the F35 and F22 as well as powerful and reliable engines along with effective radar absorbing materials.

The J31 and J20 are further evidence that China was determined to develop its own high-tech military gear. While China is eager to develop advanced military technology locally, it recognizes that this takes time and more effort than nations new to this expect. China tried to avoid the mistakes Russia made in this area. That means having competing designs and developing necessary supporting industries as part of that. All this takes a lot of time and involves lots of little and some major failures. The Chinese are doing it right and are willing to wait until they get the military tech that is truly world class.

The Cold War ended before the Su57 and F22 two aircraft were ready. The F22 found work where it could and was used in Syria a few times between 2014 and 2017. Since then, it has been assigned to air defense of the United States. In that capacity an F22 shot down a large, long-range Chinese espionage balloon in 2023.

The 31-ton F35 single engine, single-seat aircraft entered service in different versions between 2015 and 2019. The F35s have stealth characteristics and are equipped with all the most modern aircraft electronics, sensors, and capabilities. About a thousand F35s have been built so far and eventually, by 2044, at least 2,456 will be built. Production numbers will increase as more export customers order aircraft. Israel was the first export customer to receive the F35 because it was known that Israel was constantly using its warplanes to deal with local threats. The Israelis demonstrated that the F35 was very effective in combat and ordered more of them. Other export customers also increased their orders now that the F35 had demonstrated its effectiveness in combat. With that, the F35 became the replacement for the older and more expensive to own and operate F22, an aircraft that was never exported. With the success of the F35, the F22s are now set to be gone by 2030. As recently as 2022 the F22s received $22 billion worth of upgrades but it soon became clear that the F22 capabilities were never going to match those of the cheaper to buy and operate F35. A thousand F35s are already on order or in service and eventually there will be more than 12 times as many F35s as F22s. With so many American allies ordering F35s it will be easier to cooperate with allies for training and air combat operations.

In 2023 the U.S. Air Force began retiring F22s. By 2030, when the last F22 is retired, there will be about 2,000 F35s in service or on order. The F35 will eventually replace all F16, F15, and F18 aircraft.




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