Time marches on for the F-22

The final Raptor was set to roll off Lockheed's production line on Tuesday, and the jury was still out.

Tuesday is, quite literally, the end of the line for Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor.

After fourteen years in production, the final Raptor was set to roll off the company’s assembly line in Marietta, Ga., completing the truncated run of 187 jets — just a portion of the onetime program of 750 “Advanced Tactical Fighters.” Just that old phrase itself is enough to bring back a lot of memories.

Although F-22s have logged a lot of flight hours, they have never served in combat, and the generation of Soviet super-jets that was to have been their raison d’être never materialized. Even though the Air Force’s top leaders hinted the F-22 could play in this year’s big turkey shoot in Libya, where almost every other combat aircraft in the arsenal got a turn — B-1s sortied from South Dakota, for some reason, and the Marines were flying strikes with their AV-8B Harriers —  nope, the Raptors ended up staying home.

And maybe that was lucky, because then the jets had to spend part of the year grounded, as the Air Force tried to resolve problems with their onboard oxygen generation systems. The F-22s can fly again today, but it’s a catch-as-catch can situation, still without a permanent fix to protect their pilots. All this cost taxpayers more than $150 million per aircraft, not including larger program costs for research and development.

So despite its high promise and high cost, the jury is still out on the F-22. But if you’re worried about having so many fewer of them than originally planned, there may be hope, reports Reuters’ Jim Wolf. The Air Force is going to keep some of the critical equipment Lockheed has been using to build the Raptors, officially to sustain them, but there’s a possibility it could resume building them if it ever had to:

Bringing back the F-22 line would take less than $200 million, “a fraction of the costs seen in previous line restarts of other weapons systems,” Alison Orne, a Lockheed spokeswoman, said by email, citing preliminary analysis.

The Air Force said government-owned F-22 production is being stored “for the sole purpose of sustaining the F-22 fleet” over its lifetime. “No F-22 parts, tooling or related items are being stored for the purpose of preserving the option of restarting F-22 production,” Jennifer Cassidy, an Air Force spokeswoman, said in an email.

She said the Air Force had commissioned a RAND analysis to assess tooling preservation options at congressional direction. The study concluded that saving the hardware “may significantly ease the execution of future F-22 sustainment needs, and the storage of that tooling can be provided at relatively low cost.”

With a service life of 30 years and a reputation as the deadliest airborne threat since Zeus, what could possibly happen to the Raptor fleet to force the Air Force to buy more?

Think back to September’s discussion about America’s industrial ‘surge’ weakness, when Barry Watts and Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments quoted a bleak scenario for the Air Force: The big balloon has gone up and it’s “Twelve O’Clock High” over the Taiwan Strait. American F-22s do all right against as many Chinese tactical fighters as possible, but there are so many of them they overwhelm and eliminate the Raptors’ tanker and AWACS support. So F-22s crash not because of enemy action but because they run out of fuel on the way back to their base at Guam.

Nightmares like these are one reason F-22 advocates have been saying all along it was a bad idea to truncate production — if China can get these kinds of free kills with Su-27s or Su-30s, just think what the J-20 might be able to do. That means the Air Force needs more, ever more F-22s, they say, to add a quantitative edge to the qualitative one the Raptor already has. It didn’t happen, but maintaining some of Lockheed’s tools may mean it could be theoretically possible to replace an F-22 — even though it would be neither cheap nor easy.

UPDATE: Here’s Lockheed’s very special video about its very last F-22 Raptor.