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Tue, May 23, 2023

F-22 Raptor Replacement Contract Up for Grabs

Another Day, Another USAF RFP

The Air Force has formally opened a Request for Proposals to seek bids for the F-22 Raptor’s future replacement, looking for a full-scale development phase of the next generation, crewed air superiority fighter. 

While those privy to the general gist of RPFs aren’t quick to get their hopes up of any true successor - after all, a lot of cool ideas have been effectively stillborn at the feet of government procurement, never making their way to actual procurement - but the specter of a 6th gen super fighter is still an exciting one. The program has been shortened to the “Next Gen Air Dominance” program, or NGAD. The USAF plans to spend $16 billion on the aircraft’s development over the next 5 years. 

“This solicitation release formally begins the source selection process, providing industry with the requirements the Air Force expects for NGAD, as the replacement of the F-22.” The F-22 has become an oddball in the USAF fleet, a rare top-of-the-line show of force and flagship fighter, part workhorse and part collector’s car. With only 187 produced, the Air Force has had to keep a watchful eye on where it’s burning up its allotted airframe time, lest it time out an irreplaceable aircraft. While they had once planned on procuring more Raptors, the fighter’s high cost rankled brass trying to get the F-35 program off the ground, ultimately leading to the premature end of F-22 production. Since then, the optimistic idea of the F-35 taking up the F-22’s place as a cutting edge air dominance platform seems to have receded amongst most, with a kind of grimacing realism taking its place. Now, it seems, the best way out of the 6th gen fighter problem is through, with a true, purpose-built air-to-air fighter.

The force confessed just how badly they want the NGAD, admitting that some F-35 procurement would be deferred to free up funding for the process. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall even let slip that the next-gen aircraft would cost multiple times what the Raptor did… the same Raptor that was ended mid-production due to its expensive per-unit cost. Evidently that $191.6 million price tag is child’s play, now: The NGAD will cost “several hundreds of millions” per aircraft, according to Kendall.

The elephant in the room remains just how much the force will ever be willing to spend on a manned aircraft today, though. For years, the general consensus has pointed to hordes of cheap, autonomous aircraft duking it out in gripping bouts of AI-powered missile spamming from afar, pressing designs to focus on low observability and sensor performance. The Air Force may be learning some realistic lessons from the recent Ukraine war, rekindling its faith in the utility of crewed aircraft as an unjammable, unhackable “autonomous” asset. Or, the RFP can generate some fun concept art and yet another entry in the long list of cool - but unproduced - fighters.

FMI: www.af.mil

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