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F-22 Raptor Program

Originally, the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program sought to counter a Soviet threat during the Cold War. The ATF’s mission — air superiority — included finding and destroying high-priority enemy interceptors, standoff jammers, and large, offensive attack formations.

Plans did not call for air-to-ground attack, reconnaissance, or other “multirole” missions. Advancements in Soviet weapons, especially the MiG-29 and Su-27 aircraft, during the 1980s heavily influenced the ATF’s design. Developed about a decade after the F-15, these platforms possessed similar aerodynamic performance although their avionics and long-range weapons remained inferior. Nonetheless, these Soviet advancements led Air Force leaders to believe that the F-15’s decisive air superiority advantage was fading. They wanted the ATF to preserve the technological advantage needed to battle superior Soviet numbers without incurring unacceptable losses.

Seven companies presented proposals to the Air Force during the concept-exploration phase. The service subsequently decided to incorporate a demonstration/evaluation phase with two contractors competing in a flight-test competition using full-scale prototypes, selecting Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to lead the two teams in developing the YF-22 and YF-23, respectively. In 1991 Secretary of the Air Force Donald Rice announced that although both designs met requirements, the Lockheed Martin proposal was superior because it offered “better capability at lower cost.”

The Air Force considered the Lockheed Martin / Boeing / General Dynamics team more likely to deliver on its promises than the Northrop / McDonnell Douglas team, whose reputation was tarnished by B-2 problems and the A-12 cancellation. Thus, the ATF became the Lockheed Martin F-22.

648 Aircraft
1991 - Engineering, Manufacturing, and Development (EMD)

The demonstration/evaluation phase transitioned to the engineering, manufacturing, and development (EMD) phase in 1991. At that time, the Air Force forecast that the new fighter would reach initial operational capability (IOC) 10 years later—in 2001. Although the service intended to replace approximately 790 air superiority F-15s with F-22s, early post–Cold War cuts reduced planned production from 750 to 648 in 1991. At that time, it estimated the total cost of the program at $99.1 billion in “then-year dollars.” Of that amount, $19.5 billion was dedicated to development (including $3.7 billion already spent during demonstration/evaluation).12 The remaining $79.6 billion went to production, making the average production unit cost (APUC) $122.8 million.

In the early 1990s, the overall Department of Defense (DOD) budget came under increasing pressure in anticipation of a post–Cold War “peace dividend.” By fiscal year (FY) 1997, the DOD budget had decreased 38 percent from its FY 1985 peak while the procurement portion of the budget was simultaneously reduced by two-thirds (both figures in constant-year dollars).14 The dwindling budget created an exceedingly difficult environment for F-22 development.

The Air Force’s post–Cold War sustainment strategy entailed sacrificing force structure and preserving modernization programs. Implementation of this strategy called for decreasing active duty manning by more than 40 percent — from 602,582 to 351,375 personnel between FY 1987 and FY 2000 — while the service aggressively retired older tactical aircraft like the F-4, F-111, and A-7. Consequently, by 1993 the Air Force’s force structure had shrunk from 36 to 27 fighter wing equivalents, well ahead of the post–Cold War drawdown identified in the outgoing Bush administration’s base force. However, the new Clinton administration, determined to reduce the growing federal deficit, soon planned a second major restructuring of the military.

The Air Force believed that simultaneously funding multiple development programs for tactical aircraft probably was not tenable. Furthermore, senior Air Force leaders strongly supported the F-22. For example, Gen Michael Loh, commander of Tactical Air Command in the early 1990s and author of the original ATF Statement of Need in 1981, remained “closely, and continuously involved with the ATF program” throughout his active duty career.

Gen Merrill McPeak, then the Air Force chief of staff, declared in 1994 that the F-22 “is probably the single most important [acquisition] program” in the entire Air Force. After retiring, he continued to testify on the need to procure additional F-22s. As a result of this widespread support, other developmental programs such as the A/F-X (a joint Air Force and Navy strike fighter) and the Multirole Fighter (an F-16 replacement) were sacrificed for the F-22 during the Bottom-Up Review (BUR) negotiations.

The F-22 program survived, but the aircraft needed to do more. Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition John Deutch was initially undecided on the F-22. He advocated that the initial operational aircraft incorporate an air-to-ground strike capability, enabling the F-22 to eventually replace the F-117.22 In response, the Air Force moved to broaden the F-22’s capabilities by formalizing limited air-to-ground strike — a capability under consideration for some time. The modified F-22 design carried two 1,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) guided by the Global Positioning System in its internal weapon bays. Lockheed Martin incorporated this “add-on” capability for the relatively modest sum of $6.5 million. For the first time, the Air Force had modified the F-22’s design to incorporate an additional capability other than air-to-air.

442 Aircraft
1993 - Bottom-Up Review (BUR)

The Bottom-Up Review (BUR), released in 1993, further reduced the Air Force’s fighter strength to 20 fighter wing equivalents. Planned F-22 production also decreased to 442 jets, a roughly proportional cut consistent with the new, smaller force structure. Although disappointed, the Air Force was relieved that the F-22’s projected IOC date did not slip further beyond 2003 (since 1991 it had already slipped two years).

Throughout its history, the primary criticism directed against the F-22 program was that the post–Cold War threat environment did not justify its cost. The 1993 BUR identified the DOD’s responsibilities after the Cold War: deter major regional conflict, maintain overseas presence, conduct small-scale intervention operations, and prevent attacks involving weapons of mass destruction. Air Force senior leaders continued to focus on advanced airborne threats of the future. They believed that although Russia was less likely to present a direct threat to America, its advanced aircraft (or even Western developmental programs such as the French Rafale) still justified continuation of the F-22 program.

Additionally, General McPeak established a commitment to stealth that strongly influenced the Air Force’s acquisition policy for the next 20 years: “As we field combat air forces for the future, stealth and precision must be first-order requirements.” His testimony to Congress provided the most plausible F-22 justification, arguing that the F-15C’s replacement must preserve the ability to operate over enemy territory: “If we want to defend United States airspace, the F-15 will work fine. But I do not know where we are going to have to go in the year 2010 and have this fight. What I do know is I want to fight over his guys — not over my guys — and that is what air superiority means to us, and that is really why we need the F-22” (emphasis in original).

However, General McPeak also argued that the F-22 was needed for lower-threat environments, noting that Bosnian air operations also justified the aircraft even though pilots did not face advanced threats there. Air Force support for the F-22 remained consistent and unified, but others were not convinced.

In December 1993, the General Accounting Office (GAO) presented a classified F-22 report to Congress. An unclassified version, along with public testimony, followed in early 1994. The report assessed the F-15 as superior to projected air threats in four of five performance categories (flight performance, radar, long-range missiles, short-range missiles, and range). Additionally, the report analyzed seven countries whose air forces represented potential threats to future air superiority missions.

It concluded that (except for China) each of those air forces possessed between 188 and 460 fighter aircraft, far fewer than the number of US air superiority F-15s in service at that time. Furthermore none of them had more than a handful of advanced fighter aircraft with performance in the F-15’s class. Finally, the report predicted that high costs likely would prevent proliferation of these aircraft. In short the GAO recognized that the F-22 greatly improved air superiority capabilities but contended that the F-15 could adequately meet air superiority requirements through at least 2014. Based on this assessment, it recommended that the Air Force delay IOC for seven years.

The service aggressively countered the GAO report, arguing that it underestimated the threat while overestimating the F-15’s capabilities. The Air Force’s own analysis projected that the F-15 was inferior to the future threat in “range” and “short-range missiles,” equal in “radar” and “long-range missiles,” and superior only in the “flight-performance” category. Ironically, the F-22 failed to deliver improved performance in those areas in which the Air Force assessed the F-15 as most deficient: range and short-range missiles.

Nonetheless, the service reinforced its F-22 argument with thousands of simulations modeling the F-15 against the Mnogofunksionalni Frontovoy Istrebitel (Multifunctional Frontline Fighter), a Soviet developmental project that never entered production. Scenarios pitted two F-15s against eight of these fighters, based on the BUR requirement to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously. According to Air Force models, the F-22 would establish air superiority in seven days while the F-15 needed 22–25 days — and only after experiencing 4.8 times the losses. In effect, the Air Force had defended the F-22 by using its own assumptions about future threats without addressing the GAO’s fundamental allegation — the implausibility of the Air Force’s threat assumption.

339 Aircraft
1997 - Quadrennial Defense Review

Just a year after the BUR, the F-22 program again came under pressure. Deputy Secretary of Defense Deutch sent a memo to the services on 18 August 1994, calling for a review of several major acquisition programs. Deutch himself noted that the reduced threat made the F-22 program vulnerable. He asked the Air Force to comment on the possibility of delaying F-22 production by up to four years.

Shortly afterwards, Lockheed Martin set up a “derivatives team” to explore further expansion of the F-22’s mission set. The team looked into a suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) variant (providing a follow-on capability to the Block 50/52 F-16) and an electronic surveillance version that could collect electronic emissions deep in enemy territory. However, neither of the two variants got off the drawing board, and the derivatives team stood down in 1997 to focus on the original design.

Nonetheless, the Air Force felt more pressure to demonstrate that the F-22 could fulfill additional requirements. One anonymous congressional staffer remarked, “I hope the Air Force is ready to unveil some new improved, better version.” Recognizing that significant design changes were cost prohibitive, the Air Force turned to adapting the baseline F-22 to other missions. For example, Aviation Week and Space Technology reported that the F-22 would “collect electronic intercepts and thereby pinpoint the location of enemy headquarters for Navy Tomahawk cruise missile or Army artillery rocket attacks.” Moreover, Air Force officials hinted at a strategic electronic-intelligence collection capability similar to that of the RC-135 Rivet Joint. However, these capabilities were not part of the F-22 design criteria, and currently fielded F-22s cannot conduct these missions effectively.

Other examples revealed the Air Force’s struggle to defend the F-22. For example, one anonymous Air Force official noted that the F-22 offered “good connectivity with off-board sources, a sensor suite that collects a lot of information on its own, plus an electronically scanned radar that has good sensitivity against low RCS [radar cross section] cruise missiles, and a good combination of missiles.” In fact, upgraded F-15Cs were equal or superior to the F-22 in these areas (except for its sensor suite, where the F-22 enjoyed marked superiority). Furthermore, this argument ignored both the F-22’s greatest advantage (stealth) and the availability of upgraded F-15Cs years before F-22 IOC at much lower cost.

One finds another example in Gen Ronald Fogleman’s defense of the requirement for 442 F-22s, claiming that it would reduce territory lost by 18 percent as well as lower ground casualties by 28 percent and armor losses by 15 percent in future land battles—claims largely undermined by the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Despite the Air Force’s objections, the May 1997 QDR imposed further cuts in the planned production of F-22s to 339 aircraft. This QDR noted that, unlike previous reductions which mirrored overall force cuts, a reduction to 339 was “consistent with its much greater capability compared to the F-15, as well as our overall affordability concerns and force structure decisions.” The only silver lining was that the Air Force had received a “promise to support production of two wings of F-22 strike aircraft,” which would restore total F-22 production to the 400–500 range—a promise never kept.

381 Aircraft
2000 - Air Expeditionary Forces (AEF)

By 1996 rising program costs led the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition to charter a joint estimating team (JET) to approximate the program’s future costs and determine ways to control the growth of such expenses. The JET estimated that the EMD would cost $18.7 billion (this figure does not include $3.7 billion spent during demonstration/ evaluation). Congress subsequently adopted this number to establish an EMD limit in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1998. It also implemented a $43.4 billion limit for production.

This marked a significant change for the F-22: a requirements-driven program had now become budget-driven. Under this “buy-to-budget” acquisition strategy, decreased production numbers would fund additional production costs. Air Force and Lockheed Martin officials initially expressed confidence in their ability to keep costs below the new congressional limits without reducing production. However, expenses continued to rise.

In the wake of the 1997 QDR, the Air Force implemented a new construct for its deployable forces. By 2000 all operational fighter squadrons had been grouped into one of 10 air and space expeditionary forces (AEF) packages that could deploy to meet deterrence, contingency, or war-fighting requirements.

Meanwhile, it was becoming clear that producing 339 F-22s would cost significantly more than $43.4 billion, a situation that demanded a new acquisition strategy to secure additional funding support and stop the erosion of production numbers. The AEF construct became the fundamental justification for F-22 numbers. The Air Force argued that since each AEF had an air superiority F-15C squadron (each including 24 aircraft) assigned to it, the service needed 10 operational F-22 squadrons. Secretary of the Air Force James Roche later quantified the exact requirement at 381, after including training, test, and attrition F-22s in the total. The AEF requirement formed the foundation of the Air Force’s F-22 acquisition argument throughout production years.

187 Aircraft
2005 - Defense Transformation

In 2001 President George W. Bush appointed Donald Rumsfeld secretary of defense with a mandate to reform the DOD. Secretary Rumsfeld used the word transformation to describe the process of preparing the department for new and different threats in the post–Cold War world. During early testimony to the House Appropriations Committee, he also made clear the need for recapitalization: “The Tomahawk cruise missile program, the F-15, F-18 and the F-16 aircraft flying today, were developed in the 1970s. . . . Because of the long procurement holiday of the 1990s, we have been left a poor hand. We must resolve to leave a better hand to our successors.” The only question concerned which acquisition programs supported transformation.

Even at this early point, Secretary Rumsfeld appeared skeptical about the F-22 program; in fact, he did not mention the Air Force’s highest acquisition priority a single time during his testimony.

By late 2004, Secretary Rumsfeld had concluded that additional F-22s did not support his transformation vision, so he sought additional production cuts. Massive cost overruns, combined with a high-profile acquisition scandal involving senior acquisition executive Darleen Druyun, undermined the Air Force’s ability to defend the program.

Late in 2004, Presidential Budget Directive 753 removed production funding after FY 2008, effectively ending production at 183 F-22s. The Air Force spent the next five years trying to overturn this decision but ultimately secured support for only four additional F-22s.

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