Word is that Lockheed is pitching an F-22/F-35 hybrid to the US Air Force, a pitch that is not unlike what they have pitched to Japan. This new plane would have similar body style to that of the F-22 and a similar avionics package to that of the F-35. For the Japanese version, reportedly more than half of the plane would built in Japan. In addition, the Japanese would also be footing a large part of the development cost–which, if based on the F-22, could be a huge savings since much of the techs, and specs, are mothballed in the Nevada desert.
Costs remain a huge factor. The F-35A is estimated at around $90 million per aircraft in the Pentagon’s latest order. The initial estimates for the F-22 hybrid, based on a total purchase order from both Japan and the US of 140 planes, is something less than $190 million per plane. Currently, the Air Force plan is to purchase more than 1,700 of the F-35s. By contrast, the Air Force only purchased 180 of the F-22’s–a plane which is regarded as the best fighter in the world right now–and it’s technology is approximately 15 years old. However, with Japan reportedly willing to foot a big chunk of the development costs for an F-22 hybrid and if, say 400 of the planes were built–and does anyone really think the Israelis wouldn’t be interested in a plane of this caliber?–the price tag of this plane could drop dramatically. For instance, the Nikkei Asian Review indicates that for 70 planes, the price tag per plane comes in at $216 million; at 140 aircraft, that figure drops to $190 million per order. At 400 aircraft, the economies of scale would be significantly more reduced, and still allow for more than 1,200 of the F-35s.
A brief look at the US Air Force inventory over the years is somewhat enlightening: in the ’60’s, Secretary of Defense McNamara ordered the Navy, Marines and the Air Force to purchase the F-4 Phantom with several thousand being built, not only for the US but also for our allies. In the 70’s and then into the 80’s, the Navy flew the F-14 and the F/A-18 while the Air Force flew the F-15 and the F-16. Each plan had it’s own unique features: the F-14 served as the Navy’s air superiority fighter featuring the vaunted Phoenix missile system and the F-15 served the Air Force as the preeminent air-to-air fighter–and to this day, not a single F-15–world wide–has been lost in air-to-air combat. (Indeed, the F-15 is such a reliable aircraft that back in 1983, after a mid-air collision, one Israeli F-15 lost its entire right wing and the pilot was still able to fly and land the aircraft!) The Navy has since retired the F-14, but both the Air Force and the Navy fly aircraft that were state of the art back in the ’80’s! The last F-15 the US purchased was more than 15 years ago.
Clearly, the US military has gone with one aircraft for all three services in its history. However, with different mission sets for each service, the flexibility of different aircraft serving those mission sets is clearly needed. Even for the F-35, there are three different versions–one for each of the flying branches, each with its own characteristics. Adding an enhanced F-22 could only complement the Air Force’s F-35A–similar to the way the F-15 & the F-16 complement each other today, both for the US Air Force and, in a way that is on display practically on a regular basis, with the Israeli Air Force.