Raptor Skipping Its Mid-Life Crisis

The first production version of the F-22 Raptor completed its first flight 20 years ago, but Lockheed Martin analysis shows the fifth generation fighter should be able to keep flying until 2060. USAF photo by SSgt. Michael Battles.

The F-22 community celebrates the 20th anniversary of the first flight of the production version of the Raptor, made Sept. 7, 1997, from Dobbins ARB, Ga. Ken Merchant, Lockheed Martin vice-president for F-22, told Air Force Magazine that company analysis shows the F-22 can likely keep flying until 2060, assuming it receives regular updates.

“We’ve taken it to two-and-a-half lifetimes,” Merchant said, meaning the F-22, meant to last 6,000 hours, could probably keep flying “14,000-15,000 hours.”

The extended life has to do with many factors, such as tracking the number of hours each airplane logs, and whether those hours are hard-turning, high-end combat training, or what Merchant called “highway miles;” meaning ferry flights, low-impact patrols, deployments, and escort missions over Syria. Some Raptor flying has also been supplanted by simulator rides, further stretching its service life.

He said he’s trying to talk the Air Force into upgrading F-22s used in the training role at Tyndall AFB, Fla., to full combat standard, which would buy the service 20 percent more Raptor combat capability. It would also allow aircraft coming out of depot to go wherever they’re needed, instead of having to go back to the unit that sent them, eliminate the need for different-block simulators, and standardize parts and software, which would save money. Gen. Mike Holmes, head of Air Combat Command, has told Air Force Magazine he’s a fan of the idea, but it has to compete with a long list of higher priorities.

Merchant said the F-22 is already through its first few upgrades, adding new weapons, new sensor capability and software. He added there are many ideas for continuing to improve the jet, which saw its first combat action in September, 2014, at the outset of Operation Inherent Resolve. These include new stealth treatments—borrowed from the F-35—as well as an updated cockpit, which still uses early-generation flat panel displays.

After 20 years, even the F-22 is suffering from “vanishing vendor syndrome,” in which parts suppliers go out of business and replacements must be scrounged or parts re-designed.

Merchant also said Lockheed continues to get requests for information from Congress about what it would cost to restart the F-22 production line, which was prematurely terminated at 187 operational aircraft, but USAF insists it has higher priorities.

Even into its third decade, the Raptor continues to be judged the most powerful fighter in the world, and Merchant said continuing updates should keep it in that rarefied status for many years to come. It’s likely the F-22 will be superseded by a new capability in the 2040s, he acknowledged, but it would still, at that point, be a most potent “homeland defense” interceptor.

F-22s have in some ways replaced aircraft carriers as a formidable show of force when deployed to regional hotspots, as Raptor deployments to the West Pacific have had great success quieting bellicose rhetoric from North Korea and China. Russia and China, when touting their own fifth-generation combat aircraft, still acknowledge they are merely getting “close” to the performance of the F-22.