Is the F-15 vs. F-22 Contest Finally Settled? U.S. Air Force Retiring Raptors While Ordering More Eagles

The announcement on March 29 that the United States Air Force would begin retiring the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter from service likely marks the resolution of a decades long argument over which heavyweight air superiority fighter could best fulfil American requirements - one of the only two aircraft of this kind to have joined the service in the last half century. The competing fighters are the fourth generation F-15 Eagle which entered service from 1975, and its fifth generation successor the F-22 which joined the fleet in December 2005. Where the F-15 was developed as a costly high performance airframe to replace the third generation F-4E Phantom and go head to head with top end Soviet aircraft, at the time most notably the MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor, the F-22 had the same role but was intended to succeed the F-15. It was expected that, much like the F-4 was quickly phased out of production after the F-15 began to join the fleet, the F-15 would also see production cut and its numbers fully replaced by F-22s over the 2000s and 2010s. Like the F-15, which for the U.S. Air Force alone has been developed from the baseline F-15A into the B, C, D, E and EX variants, the F-22A was expected to see a wide range of variants developed including possibly a carrier based variant and a strike fighter variant as well as twin seaters and an improved ‘F-22C.’

The Raptor was meant to retain the excellent flight performance of the F-15, but improve on it with a new generation of sensors, greater manoeuvrability using thrust vectoring, a higher endurance, new avionics and data links, and perhaps most notably a radar evading stealth profile for greater survivability. It was intended to do this while reducing the F-15’s already high operational costs. While the fighter program appeared to have potential, and was seen as necessary as the Soviet Union in the 1980s began to field aircraft which could in many respects outperform the F-15 such as the Su-27 and MiG-31, many within the U.S. Military advocated focusing on exploiting the Eagle’s potential for modernisation as a more effective alternative to developing an entirely new fighter design. Supporters of the F-22 nevertheless prevailed, one notable reason being Soviet work on the promising MiG 1.42 fifth generation fighter, with F-15 acquisitions thus ending in 2001 and the class expected to end production soon after and being manufactured solely for export in the interim. 

Despite the F-22’s initial promise, the program proved entirely incapable of providing a viable successor to the F-15 and thus failed in its primary goal. The Raptor proved to have a shorter range than the Eagle, had much greater difficultly incorporating upgrades leaving its avionics behind the latest F-15 models by the mid 2010s, and had much higher maintenance requirements and operational costs which kept availably rates low and made fielding the aircraft in comparable numbers to the F-15 unviable. The program never moved beyond the basic F-22A airframe, with strike, naval, twin seat and improved variants failing to materialise, while the fighter itself saw 75 percent of production cut and had orders to terminate manufacturing given less than four years after the first aircraft entered service. A ban on exports, and the questionable viability of the aircraft for foreign sales to begin with due to its tremendous operational costs and many performance issues, imposed further restrictions and ensured that the F-15 would remain in production longer as the only Western heavyweight on offer. The F-15 meanwhile continued to be improved, with export sales to South Korea, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Qatar financing tremendous improvements to the design which paved the way to the U.S. Air Force resuming orders for the much improved F-15EX variant from 2018. 

The clearest sign of the F-22 program’s failure is that despite only a fraction of the originally planned airframes having been produced, and despite the being relativity new in service, the Air Force announced in May 2021 plans to retire the aircraft while keeping on the F-15EX. In March 2022 it further indicated that the first units would begin retirement imminently. This confirmed longstanding suspicions that the F-22’s primary issue was not its high manufacturing cost, with even those airframes already manufactured being favoured for early retirement and likely leaving service while some Cold War era F-15Cs still continued to fly. Rather, excessive maintenance needs, an inability to easily incorporate upgrades, and multiple performance issues, were to blame. The F-15EX will meanwhile continue to be acquired, with its advantages in performance over the Raptor beyond its much greater ease of maintenance and higher availability rates became increasingly apparent.

The F-15EX’s sensors and avionics were all technologically one-to-two decades ahead of the F-22, while it had gained the Raptor’s ability to suprcruise and had a considerably higher endurance. Unlike the Raptor, which had no standoff air to ground or anti ship capabilities, the F-15EX is a close contender for the title of the world’s top strike fighter with a very wide range of standoff missiles. Even in visual range combat, where the F-22 remains the only Western fighter to use thrust vectoring engines, the Raptor’s lack of helmet mounted sights which the F-15 had left it at a disadvantage and unable to engage targets at extreme high off boresight angles. The F-15’s use of an infrared search and track system further supplemented its sensor superiority and made it potentially much more dangerous against enemy stealth targets. 

Ultimately the longstanding debate both within the U.S. Military and among aviation analysts about whether the F-22 or a modernised F-15 were best for the U.S. Air Force has likely been resolved, with the F-15 still in production and on order by the Air Force 50 years after its first flight while the Raptor, seeing under six years of production after entering service, will see very young airframes that served for under 20 years begin to retire. Had more time been taken over the F-22 program, and more effort been made to make it easy to maintain and to upgrade, the fighter may well have been able to replace the Eagle in the 2000s and 2010s as planned and succeed it in production. As it is, however, the F-15 will continue to provide the Air Force with its most capable fighters for air to air combat for some time at least until the F-22’s sixth generation replacement being developed under the Next Generation Air Dominance Program enters service around 2030. 

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