Ending the F-22 Raptor's Production Was a Very Smart Move, Despite What Fanboys Say

F-22 Raptor 14 photos
Photo: Lockheed Martin
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Between 1996 and 2011, a measly 195 Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor Stealth Fighters left the factory floor. If you ask aviation enthusiasts, lots of them will probably tell you that's nowhere near enough to make a real difference. Some even hail the end of Raptor production as a dark day for the U.S. Air Force.
Now, we completely understand why red-blooded Americans especially might be obligated to feel this way. In many ways, the F-22 Raptor is like the P-51 Mustang of the modern era. A "Cadillac of the sky" prize fighter no doubt pinned up on the bedroom wall of countless American kids. But if we take off the rose-colored glasses, there's a good reason the Raptor program was snubbed well before most people say it ought to have been. Let's break it down to see why.

Firstly, the most obvious and striking way to see the true economic impact of the F-22 Raptor program is to look at its overall program cost from the drawing board to the end of production. According to Lockheed Martin themselves, the total program cost for the entirety of the F-22 Program was in the neighborhood of $67.3 billion. With roughly half the budget going to things like R&D and test evaluations and the other half being applied to the production of the airplane itself.

Adjusted for inflation, this equates to around $82.25 billion in 2022's money. Safe to say, procuring funding, production orders, and maintenance contracts for the 200 or soo F-22 airframes that did manage to be built was putting quite a financial strain around both the U.S. Air Force's and Lockheed Martin's necks. When you remember that the original production order for the F-22 program was slated to be as high as 750 airframes, it's fairly obvious that other military projects should take priority first after all this time.

Furthermore, it's not like keeping a fleet of 200 F-22s airworthy at a moment's notice for decades at a time is going to come cheap. Official Department of Defense figures unveiled in 2018 show the USAF's fleet of F-22s required paying a staggering $33,538 per hour in order to keep it flying and maintained on a day-by-day basis. For some context, the F-35 Lightning II project still in operation in 2022 only musters $28,455 per hour to fly. Though some third-party estimates peg the hourly running cost of the Raptor to be as high as $68,000 per hour.

This doesn't at all exonerate the F-35 for being a first-class money albatross. But what it does do at least is show what a catastrophe it may have been for the American economy had the military been steadfast in the completion of the Raptor's original production order. To drive the point home, the cost per hour of flying something as mundane as an F-16C Viper is a paltry $22,514 per hour. It may not be stealthy, but it's pretty gosh darn affordable.

Here's a hot take for you. If you think the 195 combat-capable Raptor airframes built in total is an unacceptable number, let's consider for a moment the quantity of rival fifth-generation stealth fighters produced by rival nations. According to Russian sources, only 16 total Sukhoi SU-57 (NATO Codename: Felon) stealth jet fighters are known to exist. Of those, ten airframes are for test flights only. "But.... but what about China?" we hear you yelling at the top of your lungs.

Well, the closest equivalent the People's Liberation Army Air Force can muster to the F-22 is the J-20 Mighty Dragon. With production beginning in 2009 and still going to this day, only a meager 50 or so airframes have been confirmed to have been built. With this in mind, it's safe to say the original Raptor order for several hundred airframes might have been just a tad overkill.

Thanks to production ending over ten years ago, the U.S. Military and Lockheed Martin have all the more money to shove into trying and most often failing to make the F-35 JSF a jack of all trades but master of none multirole fighter. A project even Congress is starting to get sick and tired of.
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