Last month when an influential House panel proposed that the Air Force restart production of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, many thought the idea was dead on arrival. In fact, top service leaders had previously called such an undertaking “cost-prohibitive.”
However, on Thursday the Air Force’s top uniformed officer signaled the service is open to the idea.
“I don’t think it’s a wild idea, I mean the success of the F-22 and the capability of the airplane and the crews that fly it are pretty exceptional. I think it’s proven that the airplane is exactly what everybody hoped it would be,” Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh said during an Air Force Association breakfast, according to Defense News.
“We’re using it in new and different ways and it’s been spectacularly successful and its potential is really, really remarkable. And so going back and looking and certainly raising the idea: Well, could you build more? It’s not a crazy idea,” he added.
Conceived in the 1980s, the F-22 program formally kicked off in the 1990s with the idea that the Air Force would buy 682 aircraft. Cost overruns and technical delays eventually trimmed the fleet size 442 and before the service set a final requirement of 381 warplanes.
Lockheed delivered the last Raptor in 2011, which wound up costing over $400 million apiece, and promptly broke down the production machinery, some of which is now stored in federal government sites.
Before that, though, Rand conducted a study in 2010 that looked at the costs of restarting the line to buy 75 more jets and found it would cost $17 billion in 2008 dollars, a figure that has surely increased since.
While the Raptor has seen action recently against Islamic State forces and been deployed on training missions in Europe, part of an effort to assure allies in the face of Russian aggression, the idea of reviving the fighter jet laid dormant until last month when a House Armed Services Committee subpanel inserted a provision in the massive fiscal 2017 policy bill directing the service to provide cost estimates and outline potential foreign involvement were F-22 production to come back online.
"In light of growing threats to U.S. air superiority as a result of adversaries closing the technology gap and increasing demand from allies and partners for high-performance, multirole aircraft to meet evolving and worsening global security threats, the committee believes that such proposals are worthy of further exploration,” a report accompanying the legislation stated.
The bill was later approved by the full committee and the entire House.
Welsh said the service in talks with F-22 manufacturer Lockheed Martin to determine the feasibility of reviving the production line.
It’s possible the defense industry giant, which also produces the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, doesn’t go along with the Pentagon and instead chooses to focus its efforts on getting the perennially delayed and over-budget fifth-generation fighter deployed to the armed services as well as developing a sixth-generation, potentially unmanned, warplane.
It should be noted that Welsh’s comments come just days after the Pentagon’s latest aviation inventory and funding plan found that Air Force has “insufficient resources” to maintain the 1,900 warplane level mandated by Congress beyond the current five-year budget blueprint that lasts until fiscal 2021.