Attrition: Stealth Is The Best And The Least


December 23, 2018: The U.S. Air Force had a bad year in 2018 with its premier fighter; the F-22. There were three landing accidents, two of which resulted in extensive damage as the aircraft skidded along a runway. The last time one of these skid accidents occurred was in 2012 and repairs took six years and cost over $35 million. That costly and time-consuming repair has to do with the F-22 stealth, which depends on a complex and frequently refreshed stealth coating to reduce the effectiveness of radar signals. Then there is the shape of the F-22, which must be restored precisely after an accident to maintain maximum stealth effect. One of the skidding incidents, which took place in April, was attributed to pilot error. The pilot did not take into account airfield altitude when taking off and retracted the landing gear seconds too soon and the aircraft lost lift momentarily and the rear made contact with the airstrip and that led to an aborted takeoff and a long expensive skid down the runway.

Potentially the worst incident, the massive hurricane that hit a major F-22 airbase in Florida in October, turned out to be a false alarm (but did very well as clickbait). Tyndall airbase contained 55 F-22s and 17 of them were unable to fly away before the hurricane hit. These were stored in hangers built to handle most hurricane winds but the storm that showed up in October was the most powerful to ever hit the area. Initial impressions were that damage to the hangers was so extensive that the F-22s must have suffered extensive damage. That turned out to not be the case and within a few weeks, all 17 F-22s were repaired sufficiently so that could fly off to other airbases that were still intact. Tyndall will be out of action as a major F-22 base for months, if not longer as repairs are made to structures and equipment. In short, 2018 has still been a bad year when it comes to improving the readiness rate of the F-22.

Part of this is due to the fact that while the F-22 fighter is the most advanced and capable fighter aircraft in the world it is also the most difficult to keep flying. It is also the most expensive, which is why only 195 were built. The 38 ton F-22 can cruise at 1,900 kilometers an hour and has a top speed of 2,400 kilometers an hour. Max range is 3,000 kilometers with external fuel. Normally the combat radius is 760 kilometers. The F-22 can carry about two tons of bombs and missiles internally and five tons externally. It is very stealthy and has some of the most advanced EW (Electronic Warfare) and sensors of any aircraft in service. All this capability is expensive to maintain and the cost per flight hour for maintenance is about $70,000. That’s about three times what it costs for the F-16. The F-22 is also more expensive when it comes to doing upgrades or repairing damage.

With all that it is not surprising that the air force has been unable to get the readiness rate to 70 percent (which is the low range for other fighters) and currently F-22s have a hard time maintaining a 60 percent rate. The readiness rate fell to 49 percent in 2017 but returned to 60 percent in early 2018. By the end of 2018, the readiness rate plummeted because of accidents and the hurricane. To maintain even a 60 percent rate the F-22s don’t fly enough to provide all the training (flight time) pilots are supposed to have. Another problem is the need to send F-22s overseas or on interception missions in the United States (especially when Russian long-range reconnaissance aircraft are involved.) This sort of thing always makes the news and the air force wants the F-22 to stay visible to the public. Not so much on the off chance that production might be resumed, but because getting the money for the next new fighter (after the F-35) depends on demonstrating that the existing ones are worth it. That means regularly sending a detachment of F-22s off to foreign combat zones to show that the F-22 can operate there. But to do that and keep the F-22s operating at the same tempo as other fighter types in the area the squadron (21 F-22s) has to send about half its maintenance personnel. That means the rest of the squadron flies less until the detachment returns. Another problem with these detachments, even the ones sent to Alaska (where most air intercept opportunities take place) mean the F-22s stay in regular hangers, not the climate controlled ones they have at their home base. Because of that, the special radar absorbent coating (which is meant to last up to ten years) degrades faster. Refurbishing the coating takes an F-22 out of service for up to a year.

For the F-22 all that tech also produces a lot of upgrades and fixes. The U.S. Air Force has a special program for that called RAMMP (Reliability And Maintainability Maturation Program) which will cost nearly $2 billion by the early 2020s to pay for 10,824 upgrade kits for 162 F-22s. Some of the changes are minor but others involve major upgrades to electronic systems or strengthening the fuselage or other structural elements of the aircraft. Major structural upgrades are part of another program costing over $300 million. RAMMP and other refurb and upgrade work improves reliability and readiness rates as well as reducing per-flight-hour maintenance costs. All this work also helps the F-22 to achieve its goal of remaining in service for 8,000 flight hours per aircraft. The air force currently has 183 F-22s in service and the aircraft is not exported because of the risk of some of the tech being stolen.

Reducing the maintenance costs of the F-22 remains an issue. While it requires 19 man hours of maintenance for each F-16 flight hour, the F-22 requires 34 hours. The manufacturer originally said it would be less than ten hours. Most of this additional F-22 expense (and man-hours) is for special materials and labor needed to keep the aircraft invisible to radar. The main problem is the radar absorbent material used on the aircraft. The B-2 had a similar problem, which was eventually brought under control. But even then, the B-2 cost more than twice as much to operate than the half-century-old B-52. The B-2 and F-22 use different types of radar absorbent materials, so many of the B-2 solutions will not work for the F-22. But some of the F-35 materials did.

Some of the F-22 electronics are still not as reliable as the air force would like. The F-35 uses a different approach to defeating radar signals. The manufacturer insists that F-35 maintenance costs will be closer to that for the F-15 than for the F-22. But Lockheed Martin has been saying, for years, that its F-22 would be cheaper to maintain than existing aircraft. The air force never challenged this, at least not in public. Instead, the air force tried to keep the high operating costs a secret.

In addition, the F-22 costs more than three times as much as the aircraft it was to replace. The air force wants to build more than 187 production models and has allies in Congress who want the jobs (and votes) continued production will generate. But the Department of Defense is reluctant to spend that kind of money, especially when there are so many other programs seeking funds (like electronic warfare aircraft, UAVs and upgrades for F-15s and F-16s).

In 2010 the Department of Defense decided to terminate F-22 production at 187 aircraft. This resulted in each aircraft costing (including development and production spending), $332 million. Just the production costs of the last F-22s built was $153.2 million each. Added to the cost of the last few aircraft was a $147 million fee the Department of Defense agreed to pay if the production line was shut down. This goes to pay for shutting down facilities and terminating contracts with hundreds of suppliers.

The F-22 was always superb aircraft, probably the most capable fighter in the world. But the development and manufacturing costs kept rising until it became too expensive for the media, voters and politicians. The air force was able to build it, but they couldn't sell it to the people who paid the bills. A decade before the F-22 was halted it was a $62 billion program, of which development accounted for $18.9 billion (this was a spending cap imposed by Congress). A decade before that, the air force was planning to buy 750 F-22s. Costs kept going up for two decades, and Congress refused to provide more money. So, for $62 billion, the air force ended up getting fewer aircraft.

American warplanes like the F-22 and F-35 are often called "5th generation" fighters. This leaves many wondering what the other generations were and what the next one will be. The generation reference is all because of jet fighters, and the first generation was developed during and right after World War II (German Me-262, British Meteor, U.S. F-80, and Russian MiG-15). These aircraft were, even by the standards of the time, difficult to fly and unreliable (especially the engines). The 2nd generation (1950s) included more reliable but still dangerous to operate aircraft like the F-104 and MiG-21. The 3rd generation (1960s) included F-4 and MiG-23. The 4th generation (1970s) included F-16 and MiG-29. Each generation has been about twice as expensive (on average, in constant dollars) as the previous one. But each generation is also about twice as safe to fly and cheaper to operate. Naturally, each generation is more than twice as effective as the previous one. Increasingly it looks like the 6th generation will come without pilots. That’s because producing fifth generation fighters has proved difficult as well as very expensive. So far only the United States has managed to get 5th gen fighters (F-22 and F-35) into service. The Russians are still trying as are the Chinese, even though one of their stealth fighter designs (J-20) is technically in service (even though production has been suspended after less than a dozen were produced).

The Russians have said they will keep working on their 5th generation Su-57, although some of the derivatives of their Su-27 are at least generation 4.5. One of the reasons the Soviet Union collapsed was the realization that they could not afford to develop 5th generation warplanes to stay competitive with America. The Russians had a lot of interesting stuff on the drawing board and in development but the bankruptcy of most of their military aviation industry during the 1990s left them scrambling to put it back together ever since. At the moment the Russians are thinking of making a run for the 6th generation warplanes, which will likely be unmanned and largely robotic. As of 2018 they don’t have much choice because their answer to the F-22, work on the Su-57 was canceled (“indefinitely paused”.)


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