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NGAD delay and ‘cost-saving’ redesign beg the question, why don’t we partner to build an evolved Raptor?

A US Air Force F-22 Raptor from the 199th Air Expeditionary Squadron RAAF Base Tindal, Northern Territory, following a day of flying as part of Talisman Sabre '23. (Source: US Air Force)

Revelations by US Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall that the service was seeking to cut costs on the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter program has prompted a major rethink on the program, begging the question, why don’t we partner with the US to develop and field a modernised fleet of Raptors?

Revelations by US Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall that the service was seeking to cut costs on the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter program has prompted a major rethink on the program, begging the question, why don’t we partner with the US to develop and field a modernised fleet of Raptors?

Designed to establish and maintain air superiority or air dominance over the battlefield, contemporary fighter aircraft have come a long way from their relatively modest timber and canvas forebears.

Today, integrated “networked” fifth-generation aircraft like the F-22 Raptor, the F-35 Lightning II, Sukhoi Su-57 Felon, J-20 Mighty Dragon, and FC-31 Gyrfalcon are the pinnacle of contemporary fighter aircraft design, building on the lessons of the past century of aircraft design and air combat operations.


For the United States and its allies, the F-22 Raptor – conceptualised in the dying days of the Cold War – is the world’s apex aerial predator, combining full-spectrum stealth and super-manoeuvrability, interconnected and networked lethality, guaranteeing uncontested dominance in the skies.

This emphasis on building a truly peerless air superiority and air dominance capability did, however, come at a cost, which was only exacerbated following the end of the Cold War and a belief that great power competition and the need for such a capability had gone the way of the dodo.

Even for America, the costs associated with replacing its ageing F-15 Eagle fleet with an initial 850 F-22 Raptors proved astronomical in the ensuing world of the post-Cold War “peace dividend”, especially when the “cheaper” and more mass producible F-35 Lightning II promised to be more than adequate for the existing and expected threats then on the horizon.

We now know that wasn’t to be the case, as revisionist powers – mainly the People’s Republic of China and Russia – have rapidly modernised their own air forces to include a growing number of fifth generation and four-and-half generation fighter aircraft that increasingly compete with elements of the West’s air forces.

Costs, schedule delays driving major rethink for NGAD program

In response, the US and a number of other like-minded nations began development of their own next-generation fighter aircraft, with the US Air Force commencing the NGAD and the US Navy beginning the F/A-XX program, respectively, to meet these challenges.

However, once again, costs are a major driving force behind the success and longevity of these programs, with expectations that the planned 200-strong fleet of NGAD to be procured by the US Air Force would result in a “flyaway” cost of between US$250–350 million (depending on who you ask) or AU$375–525 million per airframe (for reference, the average unit cost of the F-35A is around US$80 million or AU$120 million).

This has prompted US Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall to pivot on the multi-billion program, with an emphasis on cost, speed-to-capability, and trade-offs, telling, DefenseNews Stephen Loosey, “The family of systems concept of Next Generation Air Dominance is alive and well ... I can tell you that we are looking at the NGAD platform design concept to see if it’s the right concept or not … We’re looking at whether we can do something that’s less expensive and do some trade-offs there.”

Secretary Kendall further explained, “It’s a very expensive platform ... It’s three times, roughly, the cost of an F-35, and we can only afford it in small numbers ... the design concept that came out of that [initiative] is a very expensive concept. Scale matters, numbers matter, and so does time. We want to get something there quickly.”

However, what if there was an easier, more cost effective and collaborative way to deliver scalable, highly-capable, and lethal air superiority capability to the US and allies, like Australia, quickly?

Well, there is, and the groundwork has already been laid.

A new, improved Raptor solution

In 2018, Lockheed Martin made a surprise pitch to the government of Japan, proposing the F-22/F-35 hybrid to be jointly developed and co-funded by Japan as a precursor to Japan’s now-joint development of the Global Combat Air Program (GCAP), in partnership with the United Kingdom and Italy.

Lockheed Martin’s proposal would incorporate a host of platform advancements, improvements, and size increase to elements of the F-22 airframe while also drawing on the lessons and technology advances, particularly in sensor suites, computing power, engine technology, and materials technology that have been “baked into” the F-35 Lightning II platform.

Elaborating on these advancements, Nikkei Asia’s Yukio Tajima detailed the proposal, saying, “The updates will improve the plane’s main wings and allow more fuel to be loaded, increasing the jet’s (combat) range to about 2,200 kilometres (for reference the RAAF’s F-35A has a combat radius of 1,240–1,400 kilometres depending on configuration) so it can be used to defend isolated islands and other missions. Although the F-22 has the most advanced stealth abilities in the world, it requires a special coating that is laborious to maintain. Maintenance will be simplified by using the same material as the F-35 stealth fighter, making it easier to perform drills and deploy for battle.”

This proposal would be a marked departure from the longstanding export ban on the Raptor as a result of US concerns about the possibility of Israel exporting the top secret technologies present in the F-22 to potential adversaries like Russia and China.

But what is the US appetite for such a collaboration on such a program? Well, back in 2019, now-retired US Air Force Colonel and Group Commander of the 13th Air Expeditionary Force Brian Baldwin set tongues wagging, telling Australian and international media gathered for the 2019 Talisman Sabre Exercise, “I wish we had more of them. I wish all of our closest friends could have some. We obviously have to take care of where we take the jet so we keep it as a special capability and it’s a pleasure to be able to bring it down to Australia.”

Now yes, this is a single voice, but an important one with real-world experience of the Raptor platform and the capabilities the “standard” aircraft brings to a potential fight.

Equally, I am sure that there will be people who will vehemently oppose the development of an “evolved” Raptor as a cost-effective, evolutionary solution to our air superiority needs, rather than a cost-prohibitive, revolutionary solution as proposed under the NGAD program on grounds of cost and a non-commitment from the US.

Well, Australia’s unique relationship with the United States, now reinforced by the AUKUS partnership, means all bets are off and the old “protections” and limitations that stood in the way of such a collaborative development effort no longer hold sway.

Nor would such a program detract from the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) development program that has tasked industry upstarts Anduril and General Atomics with the task of developing a scalable “loyal wingman” style aircraft, similar to Australia’s own MQ-28A Ghost Bat to maximise the tactical and strategic capability of the F-35, the future NGAD, and B-21 Raiders.

Rather, it would provide an opportunity for us to enhance our own “loyal wingman” program, while also establishing a formidable and future-proofed air combat capability.

Overturning US ambivalence and the cost question

Interestingly, in 2017, then US Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson was pointed in her response to calls to reopen the Raptor line, telling Congress, “The start-up costs are significant and very expensive … The chief has assigned a fighter roadmap. Our plan is to put any resources we have into that roadmap and not into restarting a line from an older aircraft.”

This comment is interesting as the US Air Force has since gone on to effectively “restart the line” of an “older aircraft” in the upgraded version of the Boeing F-15 Eagle, with the F-15X Eagle II, effectively breathing new life into an airframe that dates back to the 1970s, yet reopening the Raptor line remains off limits, not sure how that makes sense, but sure.

But what about the costs associated with reopening and updating the Raptor line to deliver a “Raptor II” to serve in this evolutionary capability, as opposed to a cost prohibitive revolutionary capability?

We have to refer back to a RAND Corporation report in 2011 and the US Air Force’s own 2017 F-22A Production Restart Assessment, which would cost a total of US$50.3 billion in 2016–17 dollars, or about US$65 billion in 2024 dollars, and would deliver the first aircraft five years from contract signing.

Going further, the US Air Force report quotes a cost of US$2.62 billion in 2016–17 dollars or US$3.4 billion in 2024 dollars to finance the research and development of an “export” variant of the Raptor and to commence production with an “estimated unit cost” of US$330 million in 2016–17 dollars or $423 million per unit in today’s money.

Now yes, this seems like an astronomical figure and hardly worth it when one considers the estimated costs of the NGAD per unit, however, the US Air Force report only looked at a production run of 40 airframes and failed to account for a larger aggregate purchase across the United States, Australia, and other partners (potentially even Japan) could look to acquire.

Ultimately, to get the value for money proposal into the realm of where it would be feasible would require Australia and Japan (or the United Kingdom) to match the US quoted order of 194 additional airframes, leaving Australia and the other partner with a combat fleet of approximately 90 “Raptor II” aircraft, however, this figure could be tweaked the more partners join.

The potential of such a restart presents tantalising opportunities for industrial and military collaboration between Australia and the United States at a minimum and could be conceivably broadened to include Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom, delivering a truly global air combat solution and aggregated mass that gives us a tactical and strategic edge.

Final thoughts

With the Australian government identifying in the 2024 Integrated Investment Program that it intends to keep the nation’s small fleet of F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets and E/A-18G Growlers in service well into the 2040s alongside the 72 F-35 Lightning IIs and an as yet undisclosed or perhaps unknown final number of MQ-28A Ghost Bat aircraft, it is time to think outside the box.

Air combat and air superiority, in particular, is only going to increase in importance over the coming decades and keeping the Royal Australian Air Force at the leading edge of that shift will require a more nuanced, bespoke approach that delivers Australian decisionmakers with a robust, focused, and balanced military capability and advantage of peer and near-peer competitors alike.

Yet little remains changed in the way of material difference for the Royal Australian Air Force. Ultimately, in the case of the Air Force, little remains changed from the earliest incarnations of the 2016 Defence White Paper and, arguably, even further back than that to the 2009 Defence White Paper.

In this case, it is hard to clearly see how, beyond a series of by now well “known knowns”, the Air Force is going to be materially in a significantly different place in five years’ time, let alone a decade’s time as is the proposed funding timeline for the 2024 Integrated Investment Program and the 2024 National Defence Strategy.

One can’t help but feel that this comes as a result of the Army being positioned as the “long-range strike” partner of choice for Defence via the acquisition of HIMARS and weapons systems like the Precision Strike Missile (at least until the arrival of our nuclear submarine fleet), leaving Air Force with a confused role and undefined sense of being beyond the “application of expeditionary air power”.

Perhaps a reinvigorated Raptor capability could be the solution to beefing up Australia’s expeditionary air capability.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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