On Wednesday, Hurricane Michael ripped through Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle, laying waste to nearly every structure it touched. Amidst the rubble left in the storm’s wake, Airmen set about the task of finding what’s left of 22 of America’s most lethal dog fighting platform, the F-22 Raptor. Of the 55 advanced fighters assigned to the facility, only 33 were able to evacuate ahead of the storm. It is currently assumed that at least some, if not all, of the F-22s left behind at Tyndall may have suffered too much damage to ever be repaired — making the world’s first fifth generation fighter all the more rare.
The F-22 program was canceled by the Obama administration after only 187 of the jets were ever built. The production lines associated with the aircraft were then cannibalized by the program’s developer, Lockheed Martin, to support their next fighter platform, the F-35. The F-22 was, at the time, the world’s only fifth generation fighter, but unlike its successor the F-35, the F-22 wasn’t a compromise of competing combat requirements. The jet was purpose built to engage capable fighters like Russia’s Su-35 (now also being fielded by China). To date, the F-22 remains the most capable air intercept fighter on the planet, according to most expert assessments, but with more than ten percent of the entire production run of the jet damaged in Hurricane Michael and another F-22 crash landing in Alaska only days later — the most capable air-to-air fighter in the world is also an increasingly endangered species.
It’s at this point that the United States could opt to lean more heavily on its growing fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. After all, last month the U.S. Marine Corps successfully conducted the first ever U.S. F-35 combat operations, using the stealth jet to engage ground targets in Afghanistan. Low stakes as the operation may have been for what has been touted as the “world’s most advanced fighter,” one can be certain that the folks at Lockheed Martin were happy to have a PR win after months of headlines pertaining to cost overruns and production delays.
However, it would seem the troubled days for Lockheed’s PR department are far from over, with the order coming down from the Pentagon late last week to ground all F-35s worldwide due to a faulty fuel tube issue. The United States has taken delivery on somewhere in the neighborhood of 220 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to date — half of which were already considered non-operational. Now, the U.S. (as well as its allies) can’t put a single F-35 in the sky until a solution can be fielded.
Using some quick and dirty math, that means that, of the more than 410 fifth-generation fighters the United States boasts in its inventory, perhaps less than a quarter of that figure could potentially fly today.
However, as disappointing as that figure truly is, a bit of perspective goes a long way. When comparing America’s operational fleet of fifth generation fighters (which currently consists of maybe 50-70 F-22 Raptors in total) America still has a larger operational fleet of these stealthy fighter jets than Russia’s Su-57 and China’s J-20 fleets combined.