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SOURCE: FORBES

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighter crashed in Florida on Friday. The crash leaves the Air Force with 185 Raptors out of the 195 that Lockheed Martin LMT built starting in the mid-1990s. The F-22 from the 43rd Fighter Squadron, part of the 325th Fighter Wing operating out of Eglin Air Force Base in Florida’s panhandle region, went down in the bases’ adjacent training range at 9:15 in the morning. The pilot safely ejected.

The crash reduces by one the F-22 training fleet but doesn’t directly impact the front-line Raptor force. Which is not to say future crashes won’t quickly erode the Air Force’s deployable F-22 fleet. There aren’t a lot of Raptors to go around.

Lockheed built 195 production- and development-standard F-22s for a total cost of $67 billion, a sum that includes development but doesn’t include ongoing upgrades to the jets. The last Raptor rolled out of Lockheed’s Georgia factory in December 2011.

Accidents in 2004, 2009 and 2010—and now the 2020 crash—have destroyed four Raptors. Other, older F-22s went into storage after running out of airframe-life. The Air Force in 2017 rebuilt one timed-out F-22 in order to reinforce the flyable test fleet.

As recently as the early 2000s, the Air Force anticipated buying more than 400 F-22s in order to replace, on a one-for-one basis, all the F-15C Eagle fighters then in the inventory.

Instead, Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2009 abruptly ended Raptor production. “There is no doubt that the F-22 has unique capabilities that we need—the penetration and defeat of an advanced enemy air-defense and fighter fleet,” Gates explained at the time.

“But, the F-22 is, in effect, a niche, silver-bullet solution required for a limited number of scenarios—to overcome advanced enemy fighters and air-defense systems,” Gates added.

Within a few years, however, it was clear that Gates’ decision was premature. The explosive growth in Chinese air power and the appearance of Chinese and Russian stealth-fighter designs underscored the growing challenge to America’s command of the air.

Meanwhile America’s other stealth fighter, the ground-attack-optimized F-35, proved to be a mediocre dogfighter. Design flaws also have limited the F-35’s ability to fly at supersonic speeds. Desperate to shore up its fighter numbers, the Air Force in its 2020 budget restarted acquisition of the Boeing BA F-15 after a 16-year break.

All that is to say that every F-22 is precious.

The Air Force in 2020 split its Raptor inventory three ways.

Before the Eglin crash, 123 of the latest Block 30/35/40 F-22s equipped five front-line squadrons. Two with the 1st Fighter Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia. Two with the 3rd Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. One with the Air National Guard’s 154th Fighter Wing at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii.

A sixth front-line squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida disbanded after Hurricane Michael badly damaged Tyndall in 2018. The Air Force spread that unit’s F-22s across the other front-line Raptor squadrons.

The Tyndall-based 325th Fighter Wing trained all F-22 pilots on 29 older Block 10/20 F-22s. Test units at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and Edwards Air Force Base in California flew 16 of the oldest Raptors.

That’s 168 F-22s. The balance, 18 airframes, was in the back-up inventory. In other words, the Air Force had 18 Raptors that it considered “extra.” Thirteen were combat-coded Block 30/35/40 models. Three were training jets. Two were test planes.

A back-up Block 10/20 presumably will replace the F-22 that crashed at Eglin, reducing to two the extra training planes in the inventory. The overall back-up inventory now is 17 planes.

That’s 17 F-22s the Air Force can afford to lose in crashes or in combat before existing squadrons must start cutting their flyable strength.

The Air Force at present plans to operate the Raptor through the 2050s. In 16 years the service has lost four F-22s. If that accident-rate holds, the Air Force might lose an additional 10 F-22s to non-combat accidents before the type’s out-of-service date in 2060 or so.

In short, the Air Force has enough F-22s to keep its existing squadrons in business. But only barely. An uptick in crashes, or high losses in combat, quickly would force the flying branch to adjust or shrink the force structure.