Clock is ticking for F-22 upgrades, GAO says

Congress' watchdog warns that by the time the F-22s get their upgrades, they could be into middle age.

Many of the Air Force’s F-22 Raptors may not get their long-promised capability upgrades until well into their service lives, Congress’ watchdog warned this week, though there doesn’t appear to be much anyone can do about it.

A Government Accountability Office report cautioned that by the time the F-22s get the fourth and most wham-o-dyne of their modernization upgrades, many of the fighters will have flown around 20 percent of their design lives, limiting the amount of bang the Air Force can get for its buck. There’s even cause for concern that the upgrades could arrive later than that.

By contrast, GAO said, similar upgrades in past — as from the F-15 to the F-15E Strike Eagle, for example — have yielded entirely new airplanes fresh for a whole career. With the F-22 line shut down and the last jet being delivered this week, the Air Force probably won’t be able to get new Strike Raptors, or Super Raptors.

Here’s how the report broke it down:

Nearly all F-22A modernization upgrades will have to be retrofitted onto fielded aircraft while the legacy programs integrated their upgrades into new production aircraft. The Air Force began integrating F-22A Increment 2 onto production aircraft in 2007, and received the first Increment 2 aircraft from the contractor the following year. All of the remaining aircraft were produced and delivered with Increment 2 upgrades incorporated. However, F-22A production was terminated in 2009, before the second modernization increment (Increment 3.1) had finished development, so the remaining modernization increments will have to be retrofitted into the fleet. As a result, the aircraft will have used up some of their service life by the time they are fully upgraded. Based on F-22A flight hour data provided by the program office our analysis indicates that a large number of aircraft are likely to have flown more than 1,500 hours, or nearly 20 percent of their 8,000-hour service lives, before the Increment 3.2B upgrades are fielded.11 In contrast, the legacy programs produced entirely new upgraded aircraft.

The Air Force had to “modernize” the world’s greatest fighter even as it was brand new, because it had to adapt to a ground-attack role as well as an air superiority role. That’s why it plans to spend another $9.7 billion on the program after having spent about $67 billion to develop and buy the F-22 fleet, and then about another $2 billion for “reliability improvements,” GAO said.

The agency’s charge was to compare the F-22’s modernization with that of legacy aircraft, which it did, though there aren’t many useful parallels. As GAO spells out, the classic F-teens fighters that have now become icons came from a different time, and obviously were much simpler and cheaper. It took five to seven years to develop the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18, GAO said, as compared to 14 years for the F-22. The earlier jets did not have the same kind of demands for stealthiness or integration as the Raptor, so it was easier to bolt on new weapons and upgrades. The F-22, by comparison, has integrated equipment that’s tougher to upgrade, and its internal ordnance carriage means it needs new software to target and launch weapons.

All that means time, money and complexity. That’s why the Air Force hasn’t been able to upgrade its Raptors according to its initial plan, and it appears to be what makes GAO worry that the jets might be well along in service by the time they can fully perform as advertised. Here’s how the report wound up:

Although the legacy and F-22A programs began modernizing at the same general points in time, the F-22A did not originally plan for a major modernization program, so when the aircraft’s mission changed in 2003, the resources—primarily technology and funding—needed to meet the new requirements had not been fully developed or identified. As a result, the cost, schedule, and performance projections for the F-22A modernization program were not well founded and, over time, costs have doubled and the delivery of the full required capability has been delayed by more than 7 years. In addition, the majority of the F-22A modernization upgrades will be retrofitted onto fielded aircraft—a complex and costly undertaking—and by the time all of the required capabilities are fielded the amount of useful life remaining on the aircraft will likely be limited.