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.

Report: The F-22 Raptor's most lethal opponent is Air Force mismanagement
A United States Air Force F-22 Raptor is prepared for takeoff at Nellis Air Force Base while participating in the Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment 2006 (JEFX 06) on April 25, 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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.