According to news reports about 20 F-22 Raptor jets left behind at Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle just south of Panama City were damaged by Hurricane Michael on October 10. A further 33 of the expensive fighter planes were flown out of the base before the storm hit, but those left behind were under maintenance and could not be flown out.

The base suffered extensive damage with some hangars having their rooves partly ripped off, as can be seen from the video below.

The F-22 is the most formidable stealth fighter aircraft in the US Air Force. Unlike the F-35, which is primarily a tactical air superiority platform, the F-22 is a multi-purpose fighter-bomber that can operate at long range and, when properly maintained, offers nearly-all-aspect stealth protection.

The F-22 is so important strategically that it is blocked by US law from export from the United States. Nonetheless, in the past few years, the Air Force started to use the F-22 primarily in Syrian operations, where they can potentially stand up to Russia’s best aircraft such as the Su-35 and the still unproven Su-57. Likewise, if need be, they can evade the sophisticated radars of the S-400 air defense system the Russians have installed at Khmeimim airbase.

Altogether there are less than 160 F-22’s in the inventory, but only 125 are assigned to combat, which means the others are probably non-operable or unavailable for any combat purpose. Of the 125 at any one time only 80 F-22’s are mission capable, a very low availability for a combat plane. Similarly, the less stealthy but more modern F-35 has a current-day mission capable rate (outside of the current stand-down after a crash of a Marine F-35B) of 54.6%.

U.S. Air Force Airmen refuel F-22 Raptors from the 95th Fighter Squadron, 325th Fighter Wing, Tyndall Air Base, Fla., at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, Aug. 14, 2018. The 95th FS deployed to Europe as an opportunity to train with other Air Force aircraft in a realistic training environment. The deployment ensures the 5th-generation fighters are able to rapidly deploy to European bases. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Valerie Seelye)
Airmen refuel F-22s from the 95th Fighter Squadron at Tyndall at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany in August. Photo: Twitter/ US Air Force / Valerie Seelye

To a certain extent, using the F-35 and F-22 for air operations over Syria or Iraq is largely to gain experience in using the aircraft and, to a lesser extent, to show them off, just as the Russians have used Syria as an advertising platform for Russian weapons.

But it is also quite costly to run operations using these platforms, especially as other aircraft in the inventory are less costly and can do the same job. The hourly operating cost of the F-22 is $33,538 and the hourly cost of the F-35 is $28,455. This compares to the F-16 that costs around $8,278 an hour to run and with far easier maintenance.

But the bigger worry that is having ramifications across the US Air Force is the erosion of the overall readiness of the fighter aircraft fleet, which has been worn down by excessive military operations since at least the first Iraq war and has continued apace ever since.

Shortage of pilots also

And while the fleet’s readiness is under heavy question, recruiting pilots and aircraft crews has become a serious issue. In the United States one in four pilot billets is empty because no one either wants the jobs or can qualify for them. Today, the Air Force is short 2,000 pilots or about 10% of the force.

On top of over-used and aging equipment and pilot shortages, the problem that is looming, and illustrated by the Tyndall debacle, is that new stealth aircraft are very difficult to keep in the air. They require expensive and complex maintenance and testing that can ground an aircraft for months if not years.

The same thing applies to new generation rotary-wing platforms like the Boeing V-22 Osprey. The Osprey is a key piece of equipment for the US Marines and has been heavily used, especially in Afghanistan. The US has stationed V-22’s in Okinawa and on the Japanese mainland, and Japan is also acquiring them and has committed to providing maintenance. Camp Kisarazu in Chiba Prefecture in Japan has been selected for engine and other maintenance work on the Ospreys based on the 2015 Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation.

Surprisingly, the work is outsourced to Subaru, the carmaker. Kisarazu has been working on supporting US CV-22’s, but the work is expensive and the cost rising, as well as the timeline, which now exceeds seven months and is far from complete. A five-year overhaul and maintenance program cost for a CV-22 is running at 2.9 billion yen (around $26 million). This is far more expensive than supporting the Ch-47 Chinook transport helicopter (130 million yen or $1.16 million) or the AH-64D Apache attack helicopter that cost 150 million yen ($1.34 million).

Both the F-22 and F-35 are also having problems even getting spare parts for maintenance. Lockheed, the prime contractor and main supplier is responsible overall for delivering spare parts but is having trouble doing it. And even if the parts do get delivered, much of the work is time-consuming, complex and challenging. One can expect readiness levels to continue to wobble downwards as the problems multiply.

The Air Force, as is well known, canceled production of the F-22 in order to secure Congressional support for the F-35 program. The F-22, in any case, was ultra-expensive to manufacture, with a program cost of some $62 billion and a price-tag per airplane at $339 million.

Depending on the number of F-22’s lost at Tyndall, the losses could cost billions of dollars depending on the extent of the damage.

A statement put out by the US Air Force on Sunday said it was too soon to say if the fifth-generation jets F-22s would fly again, and while damage to the base was severe the Raptors appeared to be “intact”.

“Our maintenance professionals will do a detailed assessment of the F-22 Raptors and other aircraft before we can say with certainty that damaged aircraft can be repaired and sent back into the skies,” the statement, attributed to Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and senior officials, said.

Why the US Air Force selected Tyndall for the F-22, with its location right on the Gulf of Mexico, a known hurricane trajectory, is unclear.  What is already clear is that most of the structures on the base, especially the aircraft hangers, suffered extensive damage when Michael struck. Whether the Air Force will rebuild Tyndall or retain F-22 operations and maintenance at the base is not known.

The F-22 is of vital importance to airspace protection in the Pacific, especially against a Chinese air fleet that is growing in sophistication and already includes stealth aircraft such as the J-20 and the J-31. Soon there will be more, including possibly a Chinese stealth bomber such as the H-20, which China intends to show off in 2019.

The latest setback raises a serious question for the United States – what is the fallback strategy if the existing aircraft fleet lacks the readiness and capability to handle a major conflict? So far there are not many good answers.