The F-22 prototype first flew 32 years ago. Now Congress and the Air Force are at odds over the stealth jet's future.

YF-22 YF-23
A YF-22 and a YF-23 in flight.US Air Force
  • On September 29, 1990, the YF-22 demonstration aircraft took off for the first time.

  • The YF-22 would become the F-22, a dominant air-superiority stealth fighter for nearly 30 years.

  • Now the F-22's future is in doubt, with Congress and the US Air Force at odds about its retirement.

On September 29, 1990, a unique aircraft took off for the first time in Palmdale, California. During its 18-minute flight, it reached a speed of about 290 mph and a height of 12,500 feet before landing at Edwards Air Force Base.

The aircraft was the YF-22, the test demonstrator for what would become the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. It was the second model of the US Air Force's Advanced Tactical Fighter program to take to the skies, with the test itself the culmination of a nearly 50-month demonstration and validation phase.

Thirty-two years later, the F-22 has proven itself as an air-superiority fighter and inspired and informed the development of other fifth-generation fighter aircraft.

Despite its accomplishments and reputation, Congress and the US Air Force are at odds over the future of one of the deadliest aircraft ever to take to the skies.

'First look, first shot, first kill'

Soviet MiG-29 taking off
A Soviet MiG-29 at an air show in Farnborough, England in September 1990.DAVE GAYWOOD/AFP via Getty Images

The Advanced Tactical Fighter program grew out of concerns over Soviet development of new fighter jets, specifically the MiG-29 and Su-27, and advanced surface-to-air missiles in the 1980s.

Air Force officials worried that the new F-15 fighter could become outdated sooner than anticipated and wanted to develop a new fighter that could dominate the skies into the 2000s.

Studies of air-to-air combat in Vietnam, along with data from Korea and World War II, showed that air superiority was most achievable when pilots attacked enemy planes while unseen.

Consequently, it was decided that stealth should be the prime attribute of the Air Force's next fighter, and that the new jet would be built around the concept of "first look, first shot, first kill."

F-15 in Saudi Arabia
A US F-15 in Saudi Arabia in September 1990.Eric BOUVET/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

In addition to stealth capabilities, the fighter needed to be able to "supercruise" — to fly at supersonic speeds without using its afterburners. It also needed to take off from a shorter runway, handle better than the F-15, and be easier to maintain than the Air Force's other fighters.

Seven companies submitted designs. By 1985, only two were committed to building flyable demonstrators: Lockheed Corporation and Northrop Corporation. A deadline for flight tests was set for 1990.

Each company had experience designing stealth aircraft, Lockheed with the F-117 Nighthawk, the world's first stealth attack aircraft, and Northrop with the B-2 Spirit bomber.

For the new fighter, Lockheed teamed with Boeing and General Dynamics while Northrop worked with McDonnell Douglas.

First flight

Air Force YF-22 prototype jet
YF-22 prototypes conduct aerial refueling in 1990.API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Both companies made the 1990 deadline. Northrop built two YF-23s, while Lockheed produced two YF-22s.

One jet in each pair had General Electric-made YF120 engines, while the other had Pratt & Whitney YF119 engines, allowing the Air Force to evaluate how each engine performed with each aircraft.

Northrop's YF-23 was first to fly, spending 15 minutes in the air on August 27, 1990. Lockheed's YF-22 was unveiled on August 29 and flew for the first time a month later.

The YF-22 was a futuristic marvel. It had two clipped diamond-shaped wings, four trapezoidal tail wings, thrust-vectoring engines with specially designed slot-like exhausts, and internal weapons bays from which missiles would be launched.

Unlike the F-117, the YF-22's radar-absorbent materials were only applied on some parts of the YF-22, specifically the edges, cavities, and crucial surface areas.

Air Force YF-23 prototype
The YF-23 prototypes in flight.US Air Force

The flight tests were a resounding success. Both the YF-22 and YF-23 were easily able to outrun F-15 chase planes and demonstrate aerial-refueling capabilities.

Though the YF-23 was lighter and stealthier, the YF-22 proved better in the long run. It was much more agile due to its thrust-vectoring engines and successfully demonstrated the launch of AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles from its internal bays. It also flew more test flights than the YF-23 — 72 over three months.

The YF-22 and Lockheed received another advantage thanks the F-117s stellar performance in Operation Desert Storm

. F-117s spearheaded the 42-day bombardment campaign, demonstrating the value of stealth and Lockheed's ability to deliver top-of-the-line aircraft.

The YF-22 and Pratt & Whitney's YF119 engine were selected by the Air Force as winners of the ATF in April 1991.

Low-rate initial production of the fighter, designated the F-22 Raptor, was approved in 2001 and was followed in 2004 by successful completion of initial operational and test evaluations by the Air Force. Full rate production began in 2005.

Proud service and uncertain future

Air Force Donald Rice YF-22
Then-Secretary of the Air Force Donald Rice at a press conference about the selection of the YF-22.Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma via Getty Images

At the ATF program's inception, the Air Force planned to build 750 of its new fighter, but only 187 F-22s were actually built. The rest were cancelled by 2009 because of budget constraints, the acceptable performance of the F-15, the lack of a worthy adversary, and the need to divert resources to the F-35.

Despite being a relatively small fleet, the Raptors have become a dominant air-superiority fighter and are loved by their pilots. Their overseas deployments are often meant to deter adversaries and reassure partners.

In 2014, the F-22 made its combat debut, bombing ISIS targets in Syria and deterring hundreds of Russian, Iranian, and Syrian aircraft from endangering US forces there. F-22s have also conducted airstrikes in Afghanistan.

While the Air Force continues to upgrade and deploy F-22s, it also wants to retire 33 of the oldest Raptors in 2023 as part of its plan to transition to four fighter aircraft: the F-35, the F-15EX, the F-16, and the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter, which is in development.

F-22 Raptor
An F-22 Raptor.US Air Force

The Air Force argues that upgrading the older F-22s is prohibitively expensive and that it needs to focus its resources on developing longer-range missiles and NGAD, which will produce the US's first sixth-generation fighter.

Those F-22s are "just not upgraded to the state that we need to meet the current threat," Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May, adding that it would cost about $2 billion to upgrade the 33 fighters — roughly $50 million each.

"It's not a high-enough priority for us to do, relative to other investments," Kendall said.

Congress, meanwhile, is worried about losing such advanced aircraft without replacements on hand, especially as the Air Force plans to retire its F-15Cs and to cut its orders of F-15EXs by nearly half.

The House version of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act outright prevents the Air Force from retiring the 33 F-22s, while the Senate has indicated that it may prevent their retirement until the Air Force shows that there won't be any loss in combat capability.

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