The F-22 Raptor is not what we'd call an old aircraft. In fact, having taken its first flight in the late 1990s, it's still technically a teenager. It's also not terribly common, with fewer than 200 in service. But rather than kicking up the numbers of this still-youthful fighter jet, the US Air Force is keen on moving onto a new sixth-generation fighter.
According to Flight Global, the official reason comes down to cost, but also a shift in strategy for the so-called Next-Generation Air Dominance, or F-X program. It'd cost around $17 billion to restart F-22 production and add 75 fighters to the 187 currently in service, or around $267 million per unit. That's a big increase over the $150 million it cost in 2009, and it's money that Air Force brass thinks is better spent elsewhere.
Perhaps hesitant of the boondoggle that is the $1-trillion-plus F-35 Lightning II program, though, this sixth-generation fighter won't be some bleeding-edge piece of technology that takes multiple decades to enter service. In fact, Flight Global reports the next aircraft could well be based on a heavily modified version of the F-22 or F-35, citing comments from Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements Lt. Gen James Holmes made to the Senate Armed Services subcommittee during a hearing on F-22 production.
"Because we want to do it faster and don't want to do another 20-year development program for a whole host of reasons, we'll try and go with technology that are at a high readiness level now with manufacturing capabilities that are at a high readiness level now," Holmes said. "We're trying to move to a world where we go forward with new airplanes that take advantage of technology that's ready to manufacture and we have the manufacturing skills to do it, and what could we produce in five years or 10 years instead of 30 years?"
From the sounds of it, the Air Force's new approach makes it seem like the sixth-gen fighter could almost be a spiritual successor to the F-16 – a relatively affordable, plentiful, multi-role fighter. We like the sound of that, even if it does mean the F-22 remains a rare commodity.