Sixty-five billion dollars later, the plane of the future is about to become the plane of the past with no present in between. Having been developed for over 10 years, Lockheed Martin, the company responsible for the design and building of the F-22 for the U.S. Military, has finally built their 100th F-22 Raptor; one Raptor is yet to fly in battle. With two major conflicts in the Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan) and an escalating conflict in Libya, some war journalists say that the F-22 may see its first real life scenarios in the fight against Gadhafi’s regime this month. While the F-22 seems like the newest technology, however, the whole fleet could soon be disassembled and replaced by the F-35 Lightning II before the planes even get to see a bullet in battle. Because of rising maintenance costs (millions of dollars per plane per year) and the $350 million to build a single F-22, the F-35 Lightning II and similar planes could soon begin to replace the F-22 because of monetary issues.
The idea for this “super plane” was first conceived in 1981. Design began back in 1986, production began in 1997, and the 100th model was made in 2010. This plane that has been developed for 30 years in total has gone through countless training missions and drills. Currently, three different military conflicts exist for the United States; the F-22 is yet to get involved in a single one. The F-22 is the most expensive plane ever built, in both initial costs and maintenance costs. The technology built on board, nonetheless, can support that claim; it features stealth technology, the ability to hit speeds of over Mach 1.5, is super maneuverable, and possesses the ability to hover. It was thought to be the “future” when design began back during the latter stages of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1986. The high price tag was supported because of its advanced technology, and later production continued for the sake of creating jobs and government officials refusing to give up after they had already invested so much.
The F-35 Lightning II, an updated version of the X-35, first began to be manufactured in 2006 and could soon be the F-22’s replacement. The F-35 features the same technology on board as the F-22 (and more) and the much friendlier price tag of $140 million, over $200 million cheaper than it’s stealthy counterpart. As for maintenance costs, the F-22 costs $44 thousand per flight hour for maintenance, and although official figures have not yet been released regarding the F-35, according to several military sources, the maintenance costs for the F-35 are estimated at about $30 thousand per flight hour, with the lower costs partially because of the need for the same maintenance as the F-22, yet less frequently.
As of October of 2010, there were 168 F-22’s in the service of the U.S Military (all of the planes were operated by the U.S. Air Force). Government regulations and laws prohibited the exporting and outsourcing of this technology, so currently, the U.S. is the sole nation in the world to have possession of this plane. Right now, the government holds a contract with Lockheed Martin for 187 F-22’s to be made.
Presently, only six F-35 Lightning II’s exist, and all are for testing. The government estimates that by 2016 mass production will begin, and within 10 years, they hope to fulfill their full order of 2,443.
Many are comparing the enforcement of the NATO no-fly zone over Libya to the air campaign led by the United States during the invasion of the Persian Gulf War. The United States, along with the 34 other countries, used far less advanced technology during their air invasions: using just F-14’s, F-15’s and F-16’s, they were able to defeat Saddam Hussein’s heavily armed anti-aircraft facilities and take out key points of Saddam’s regime.
The anti-aircraft that are being used by Gadafi’s regime are thought to be no more advanced than those of Hussein’s regime from 20 years prior. Many believe that this would be great practice for the F-22 in case it was ever needed in a larger conflict such as a war. If the F-14 was able to defeat these air defenses, then the F-22 would be able to blow right through them. Many are presenting the following questions: why would the U.S. risk sending some of their less advanced planes into Libya, while they possess technology that could complete the mission quicker, easier, and with less risk. If the United States is afraid to put the plane out there in the field, why would they spend the money to build it in the first place?
The answer may be superiority and fear. Perhaps, the United States never actually planned to use the plane in battle; rather, they would build the plane as a sole weapon of fear. The plane may never see a bullet in battle or statistics next to its name, yet it may be the most underrated deterrent of war throughout the United States, and even the entire world.
In multiple occurrences between 2008 and 2009, both current President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates took strong stands against continuation of the F-22 program, which ended in a victory; $1.75 billion was saved by cancelling plans to build 12 more of the Raptors.
Back when this decision was made in 2009, Democrat senator Carl Levin was quoted saying, “this was a very significant decision that the Senate made after a very, very tough battle,” in an interview with The New York Times.
Obviously, this entire issue comes back to politics. It’s conservatives versus liberals and the liberals certainly seem to be coming out on top. The fate of the F-22 seems to be dwindling away as the F-35 may prevail.
The world will just have to wait and see.
UPDATE: Several weeks into the conflict in Libya, United States Air Force Representatives have announced that the F-22 will not be flying in battle due to unnecessary risks due to altitude and defenses. The F-22 will be saved for “future military roles” and F-35 design and testing is continuing as scheduled.