The USAF has lost another of its precious F-22 Raptors this week. The jet went down a couple of miles from the end of the Runway at Tyndall AFB in Florida, with the pilot ejecting to safety. No word yet on a potential cause.
Military combat aviation is a risky business, and sadly aircraft do go down. Attrition has been a part of air arm planning since the beginning of weaponizing flying machines. In other words, this will not be the last Raptor loss the force will have to endure. With just 182 examples on hand and a closed production line, it is eye opening to know that of those 182 only about 120 or so are combat coded at any given time. With such a small force structure the F-22 fleet will continue to be seen as either a silver bullet force or a token weapon system, depending on how you look at it or who you ask. Furthermore, with such a small fleet losing a jet with a price tag of over $150M (like $400M if you count R&D costs) is a hard pill to swallow. Yet even with the F-22′s high cost, the small size of the force makes losing an aircraft occasionally a comparatively small economic hardship for the USAF and the DoD as a whole. The F-35 on the other hand, an equally if not more complex machine, that is rapidly approaching the Raptor’s price tag, will be fielded by the thousands and a portion of that fleet will operate in the volatile short takeoff and vertical landing envelope and challenging fixed wing aircraft carrier environment. In turn many more examples will be lost proportionately to the tiny F-22 fleet over the program’s life, thus magnifying the economic volatility of such losses. In other words, if a Raptor is lost every other year statistically, and the F-35 is able to obtain the same attrition rate even though many examples will be operating in a riskier environment than the F-22 does today, that means about 14 F-35s would be lost biannually once the fleet is fully fielded. This would equal roughly a billion dollars a year in lost Joint Strike Fighters.
Will this break the DoD’s bank? No. But it will be much more expensive than losing a mix of simpler F-16s, F/A-18s, F-15s, A-10s, F-22s and AV-8Bs over time. Class A mishaps, costing $2M or more to repair, will also become more common as the aircraft’s stealthy skin, largely composite structure, and miniaturized advanced electronics will be vastly more expensive to fix than that of the “legacy” aircraft it replaces. For instance, what would be $350k in damage caused by a ground handling mishap with F/A-18 very well could turn into a Class A incident with an F-35C.
In the end when you operate an all stealth 5th generation fighter fleet, everything you do is simply more costly, crashing or damaging an aircraft is no different.