Air Force Now Says It Has No Official F-22 Raptor Replacement

In what could be another sign of the Air Force’s potentially withering support for the manned ‘fighter’ component of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, the head of Air Combat Command said there is now no planned replacement for its fleet of F-22 Raptor stealth fighters. Originally, the crewed sixth-generation stealth combat jet being developed under the NGAD initiative was loosely slated to replace the F-22 within the USAF force structure.

“Right now, frankly, there isn’t an F-22 replacement,” said Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach. ”The F-22 is a fantastic aircraft. We’re actually planning several upgrades to the jet as we speak, and there is no official replacement to the F-22 right now.” You can read al about these upgrades here.

A new report from the Government Accountability Office raises questions and concerns about the Air Force's push to retire 32 Block 20 F-22 Raptors.
The Air Force has no official replacement for its fleet of F-22 Raptors, the head of Air Combat Command said Wednesday. USAF


Asked directly if NGAD was the replacement for the F-22, Wilsbach declined to say.

“As most everybody knows, we’re in the source selection for the NGAD,” he said Wednesday during a Mitchell Institute forum. “And so it’s not wise, and my lawyers have advised me not to talk too much about NGAD.”

“There’s a lot of things that are not in the public sphere that we’ve been working on for a while, and we’ll continue to expand that,” Wilsbach added. “The part of it is the CCA [Collaborative Combat Aircraft] that is in the public sphere.”

A notional crewed sixth-generation stealth combat jet flies together with a trio of drones. Collins Aerospace A rendering of a notional sixth-generation crewed combat jet flying together with a trio of drones. Collins Aerospace A rendering of a notional sixth-generation crewed combat jet flying together with a trio of drones. Collins Aerospace

The future of the NGAD manned fighter program is increasingly murky, as the Air Force seeks to reduce the cost of the jets, said to be about $250 million or more apiece while also looking at the rapidly changing realities of air combat. This is in addition to having to deal with many critical modernization priorities, some of which have run massively over budget. You can read more about that in our deep dive here.

Still, Wilsbach said he expects the NGAD aircraft downselect will happen this year. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are in the running for the contract award.

NGAD is the Air Force’s current flagship tactical air combat modernization effort. In addition to developing a new crewed fighter, it has a wide array of subprograms. Hundreds, if not thousands of highly autonomous Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) drones intended to work cooperatively with crewed fighters are also a central component of NGAD. New weapons, sensors, networking and battle management capabilities, advanced jet engines, and more are also part of the larger NGAD ‘system of systems.’

General Atomics’ CCA contender. General Atomics

Wilsbach acknowledged that a delay to that family of systems would change the Air Force’s calculus on retiring the older Block-20 F-22s.

“I’m in favor of keeping the Block 20s,” he said. “They give us a lot of training value, and even if we had to in an emergency, use the block 20s in a combat situation. They’re very capable.”

As we noted in a previous story, the Air Force faces potentially serious operational, training, and testing challenges, and the risk of having to pay associated costs, if it gets rid of its 32 Block 20 Raptors, a Congressional watchdog recently warned. The service’s assessment that it would be prohibitively expensive to bring these jets, which represent just shy of a fifth of the current Raptor fleet, up to a newer standard has also been called into question.

If the NGAD is not going to replace the Raptor, Wilsbach did not offer what might.

That would leave the AIr Force at an inflection point about what comes next if any manned fighter type at all.

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Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard’s work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.