RIP F-22, Hello F-35: 1 Reason Why the Air Force Might Switch Planes

David Axe

Key point: Bulk orders of the F-35 make is a more affordable plane and it is already better than the F-22 anyway.

A new fighter to replace the F-22 Raptor could eat the U.S. Air Force's budget starting in the 2030s, the Congressional Budget Office reported.

The Air Force on average spent $12 billion per year, in current dollars, on new aircraft between 1980 and 2018. But replacing the flying branch's roughly 180 F-22s in the 2030s while simultaneously buying new F-35s, cargo planes and tankers, could cost as much as $23 billion annually, the CBO concluded in a December 2018 report.

Annual spending on new planes could increase even more if the Air Force follows through on a 2018 plan to grow the number of squadrons from 312 to 386. “The Air Force is too small for what the nation is asking us to do," Heather Wilson, the service's civilian leader, said in September 2018.

The expansion plan includes seven new fighter squadrons, for a total of 62.

The CBO's report hints at one way out for the Air Force. The service could replace F-22s with additional F-35s for less money than it would take to develop a new fighter.

The Air Force's budgetary problem has been a long time coming. Spending on new planes peaked at $29 billion in 1986 when the military still was preparing to wage war with the Soviets in Europe.

In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended. U.S. military budgets precipitously declined. By 1995 the Air Force was spending just $5 billion a year acquiring aircraft. Budgets increased after that, although modestly. The Air Force's average annual spending on new planes averaged $9 billion between 2010 and 2017, the CBO found.

The 1980s spending spree created a "bow wave" in the Air Force's inventory. In 2018, roughly 1,500 of the service's 5,500 aircraft -- including most of its F-15 and F-16 fighters -- were between 26 and 35 years of age.

Those '80s-vintage planes need replacing. But the F-35s that are replacing them cost nearly $100 million apiece. The Air Force has only been able to afford around 60 F-35s per year, compelling the flying branch to stretch out procurement of nearly 1,800 F-35s through the 2040s.

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