by DAVID AXE
One hundred and eighty-five. That’s it. That’s the most Lockheed F-22 Raptor stealth fighters the U.S. Air Force will ever possess after production ended earlier this year. The Air Force actually procured 195 F-22s starting in the mid-1990s, but eight were test models and two operational models have crashed (as has one of the test airframes).
Some perspective: the Air Force concluded it needed 381 operational Raptors to meet all its air-combat needs with low risk. Two-hundred and forty was considered a medium risk. The 187 figure was budget-driven and was adequate to equip just six frontline squadrons plus training and test units and several “associate” squadrons that provide aircrews but do not own airplanes.
With so few airframes, there aren’t many F-22s in the “pipeline” — that is, extra jets to replace crashed airplanes and to fill in for aircraft that are down for maintenance. “There’s zero attrition reserve built into our fleet plan,” said Maj. James Ackers from the Air Force’s Air Combat Command. Bottom line: it’s extremely important for the Air Force to maintain its F-22s.
Air Force Material Command tapped the Air Logistics Center at Hill Air Force Base in Utah for depot maintenance for the Raptor fleet. The Hill ALC also maintains A-10s, among other aircraft. The photo above, shot by Bryan William Jones, depicts four F-22s arriving at Hill this summer, presumably for deep maintenance. The 168 civilian workers at the $45-million F-22 maintenance center — a sprawling facility the size of three football fields — can handle 12 Raptors at a time.
The F-22 is largely made of special radar-defeating composites rather than traditional metals. That requires special facilities not found at other maintenance centers. As a backup, the Air Force and Raptor-maker Lockheed Martin have preserved the F-22′s production tooling, allowing Lockheed to manufacture new components, if required — though building all-new jets could require billions of dollars in start-up funds and is therefore unlikely.