America’s first fifth-generation fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, is widely considered to be the best air superiority fighter on the planet. The combination of its low observability and high performance makes it America’s heavyweight contender in the battle for air supremacy, even in the era of the data-fusing F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. While the F-35 was intended to serve as a jack-of-most-trades, with a heavy emphasis on air-to-ground power, the F-22 was built with one primary purpose in mind: to hunt down, close with, and destroy enemy fighters.
However, the pricey F-22 program soon saw retreating support among lawmakers that sought to reduce the cost of America’s defense apparatus without reducing the nation’s ongoing obligations in combat. With just 186 F-22s delivered to the U.S. Air Force, the program was cut short in 2009, a decision that has since been criticized as short-sighted. While the United States had no pressing need for an advanced air superiority fighter at the time, the nation now knows it was less than ten years away from a resurgence of concerns about nation-level threats posed by diplomatic competitors like China and Russia.
The Air Force, which also relies heavily on the F-15 for air superiority missions, has since tried its best to make do with its limited quantity of F-22s, which, it’s important to note, are notoriously difficult to maintain. The high cost and level of labor required to keep America’s Raptors operating tends to result in reduced availability for the airframe, but those problems, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), are seriously exacerbated by the branch’s poor management of F-22s and related assets.
According to the GAO report, it was the Air Force’s decision to organize its fleet of F-22s into smaller units than seen in traditional air wings. F-22s are flown out of 18-to-21-aircraft squadrons with only two squadrons per wing. Conversely, other fighters operate out of wings comprised of three squadrons with 24 aircraft in each. These units, the GAO contends, are able to field more fighters, more consistently, thanks to efficiencies created by sharing more equipment and resources in the larger wings.
Those issues are made worse by the Air Force’s habit of deploying F-22 Unit Type Codes (UTCs), or small contingents of jets, with only six or so of a squadron’s aircraft. These UTCs, however, deploy with around half of the squadron’s maintenance personnel and equipment, leaving the remaining jets understaffed and under-equipped when it comes time for maintenance operations. All of this results in drastically reduced aircraft availability rates, which are also worsened by the branch’s reliance on F-22s for domestic air defense missions, operations the GAO contends could easily be conducted using fourth-generation fighters like the F-15.
All of these issues combine for a perfect storm of reduced F-22 availability for combat operations, but potentially worse, reduced availability of these jets for essential training operations.
An Air Force analysis conducted in 2016 determined that, based on current aircraft availability rates, pilots in an F-22 squadron with 21 primary mission aircraft need 270 days of home station training each year to meet their minimum annual continuation training requirements,” the GAO report says.
However, F-22 pilots are generally not meeting those minimums, according to the officials, and F-22 operational squadrons have reported numerous shortfalls.”
As a result, one F-22 squadron has listed training shortfalls for its primary mission sets for four consecutive years now, with another squadron reporting a failure to complete offensive-counter-air training (one of the fighter’s primary designated functions) in three out of the last four years. Simply by pulling F-22s off of air defense operations, the report states, F-22 training hours could be significantly increased.
Squadron officials from one location estimated that they could generate hundreds of additional training sorties on an annual basis if they could use the aircraft that are currently dedicated to the alert mission.”