By Michael Sirak

The Air Force yesterday declared that its F-22A stealth multirole fighter aircraft has fulfilled all of its performance and operational requirements as a weapon system, and its pilots and maintainers are ready for operations, including combat employment, thereby achieving the major programmatic milestone known as full operational capability (FOC).

“After years of collaborative effort, a key milestone for the F-22A has been reached,” Gen. John Corley, commander of Air Combat Command (ACC), said Dec. 12 in declaring FOC. “The Raptor’s unique combination of stealth, speed, agility, precision and situational awareness combined with air-to-ground and air-to-air combat capabilities make it the best overall fighter in the world.”

ACC, headquartered at Langley AFB. Va., oversees the Raptor fleet as well as the Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighters. Lockheed Martin [LMT] leads the industry team that builds the F-22s.

Langley hosts two Raptor squadrons, the 27th Fighter Squadron and 94th Fighter Squadron, each with 20 aircraft. Both units fall under the 1st Fighter Wing. The wing currently has 80 Raptor pilots, including members of the Virginia Air National Guard’s 192nd Fighter Wing who are integrated with it.

“The integrated 1st Fighter Wing and 192nd Fighter Wing team at Langley possess sufficient Raptors, equipment and trained Airmen to provide Air Dominance for the Joint Force for many years to come,” Corley said.

The Air Force declared initial operational capability, or IOC, for the F-22 in December 2005 when the 27th Fighter Squadron had enough aircraft and crews trained to go to war if necessary (Defense Daily, Dec. 15, 2005).

The service’s current program of record is to acquire 183 Raptors, enough to equip seven combat-ready squadrons and also have some dedicated, test, training and attrition assets. In addition to Langley, the service is establishing two F-22 squadrons at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, and will later populate two units at Holloman AFB, N.M., and one squadron at Hickam, AFB, Hawaii.

However, the Air Force maintains a requirement for 381 F-22s to fill 10 combat-ready squadrons and bolster the fleet in the test and training areas and have more aircraft in reserve.

Last year, the Air Force won congressional approval to extend the Raptor’s production line by about one year into mid 2012 via a three-year multiyear procurement contract for 60 aircraft that constitute production lots 7, 8 and 9. This extension serves to bridge a gap between the draw down of F-22 manufacture and the ramp-up of building the F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter jet, which is still commonly referred to as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). This move was intended to mitigate the risk to the United States of having no active modern fighter jet production line in the event that the F-35 program faced a delay (Defense Daily, July 17 and Aug. 1).

Now the Air Force leadership is working to secure Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and congressional support to win approval to extend F-22 production by at least an additional lot of 20 Raptors. As part of this, the service is asking for permission to apply the approximately $525 million in FY’09 funding currently earmarked to pay for starting to terminate the F-22 production line instead to acquiring the long-lead materials and parts for these aircraft, which would comprise the tenth production lot.

For this to happen, the Air Force first needs OSD to insert language in the Pentagon’s FY ’09 budget request to Congress, which will be sent to Capitol Hill in early February, allowing the reapplication of the funds.

“For the ’09 budget, all that is needed is a change in language,” a senior Air Force official told reporters earlier this month. “We do expect the support of OSD.”

The 10th lot is prudent because “we are not going to be comfortable with the JSF until about 2013,” this official said. “I think we should keep the F-22 program going during that period.”

More difficult may be coming up with the additional approximately $3.9 billion in FY ’10 and beyond to pay in full for these 20 aircraft. But the Air Force’s leadership is beginning to articulate the case for the imperative of acquiring an extra $20 billion on average over the next 20 years to drive the modernizations and recapitalization of its aging fleet of tankers, transports, fighters, helicopters, information-gathering and command-and-control platforms, and satellites. Otherwise, it says, the nation’s ability to dominate the skies and project power will be at risk in coming decades (Defense Daily, Sept. 21).

This infusion of funds would cover the costs of these extra Raptors and perhaps more.