F-22s for the Marine Corps?

Could the Marine Corps end up flying what's arguably the best (and recently un-grounded) operational air superiority fighter in the skies today; the Air Force's soon-to-be out of production F-22 Raptor? One Marine is suggesting the Marines do exactly that if the Corps ends up losing its beleaguered F-35B Joint Strike Fighters to budget cuts

Yes, you read it correctly, Marines flying F-22s. One Marine is making the case for just that.

Writing in this month’s Marine Corps Gazette, Maj. Chrisopher Cannon, argues that it’s time the Corps begins looking at a plan B for the short take-off and vertical landing B-model– which has suffered numerous cost and schedule delays and was placed on a two year probation by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates last spring. Keep in mind that the plane is making considerable flight test progress and that just yesterday, the Marines’ top aviation officer reiterated the Corps long-held stance that there is no plan B for the Bravo.

Still, it’s understandable to worry about the F-35B’s fate in a time of serious budget cuts. Many would simply suggest the Corps buy more F-35C carrier variant JSFs or invest in F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.

However, Cannon argues that Marine Aviation officials should look at replacing the Bravo with a mix of low-end turboprop attack planes (similar to the one the Air Force is considering for its light attack mission) and 60 of the super high-end F-22 Raptors. This would give the Corps a light attack capability and a fighter that “dwarfs the F–35 in stealth, speed, survivability, deployability, and firepower” for less money than it would cost to buy the F-35B.

Here’s what he has to say about buying the Raptor:

On the high end, the Marine Corps could opt for the most capable AAW platform available, the F–22. Embracing an aircraft Congress recently voted to stop producing may seem like an extreme course of action, but it makes the most sense for the Marine Corps for several reasons. First, F–22s could be purchased now and would be cheaper initially and cost less to maintain than F–35s in the future. The current DoD plan is to buy 50 Marine Corps F–35B aircraft through 2016 at a cost of $9 billion, or $190 million per aircraft. In 2011, flyaway costs for the F–22 are a reported $150 million per aircraft. The U.S. Air Force estimates flying hour costs for the F–22 are $44,259 per hour. The 2008 GAO report estimated $33,000 per flying hour in a JSF aircraft. However, F–35B costs will likely be higher than A and C models. Additionally, the 2011 GAO update states that “current JSF life-cycle cost estimates are considerably higher than the legacy aircraft it will replace.” If their most recent estimate of $1 trillion in operations and support costs proves true, F–35 flying hour costs will exceed $50,000 an hour. In other words, using current estimates, total life cycle costs for every F–35 exceeds that of an F–22 by almost $100 million per plane. Certainly there would be a cost to restart the F–22 manufacturing base, but this expense is easily dwarfed by these F–35 life cycle costs.

Most significantly, the F–22 dwarfs the F–35 in stealth, speed, survivability, deployability, and firepower. With a more mature and more powerful active electronically scanned array radar, and with planned upgrades, the F–22 is a more credible and less risky investment to fulfill the VMAQ’s AEA mission. The F–22 also represents a better platform for AEA upgrades.

Significantly, this course of action would accept providing only 11 fifth-generation fighter-capable carriers. It may also require making inroads in positioning Marine F–22s in more expeditionary stations than those in Hawaii, Alaska, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Florida, and Virginia, where all F–22 aircraft are currently stationed. Forward postured Marine F–22s could provide the Nation with greater strategic reach than amphibious-based F–35Bs. With a supercruise speed of 1,220 miles per hour, an aerial refueled F–22 could make the 1,700-mile transit from Guam to Taiwan in less than 2 hours.

Future Marine Corps involvement with the F–22 program could include testing air-to-ground weapon loads on the four external 5,000-pound-rated hard points and incorporating some of the ambitious close air support-enabling avionics and software upgrades currently only planned in the F–35. In the future, this would provide the Marine Corps with the most capable, stealthy AAW fighter for day one of any campaign. In the latter days of a conflict, an upgraded F–22 could serve as our most efficient and effective OAS asset. With proper development, the same platform could serve as the MAGTF’s AEA asset; conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; or even provide control for other aircraft or missiles. This would be all at less cost than the F–35B and without the threat of cancellation looming the next 2 years.

A high/low plan B could focus on acquiring approximately 60 F–22 aircraft to replace 5 F/A–18D squadrons scheduled to begin decommissioning in FY14 and removed from service by FY20. These aircraft would provide more capability and cost less than the estimates for the F–35B. For the cost of one F–35B, the Marine Corps could acquire and support 10 counterinsurgency-focused aircraft with a 6-hour loiter time. Seven squadrons, each consisting of 14 OV–10-like aircraft, could provide AV–8B replacements, gap the STOVL requirement while waiting for technology to mature, and pass the savings on to the taxpayer as part of the Commander in Chief’s $40 billion a year in cuts. Other options are available at less risk than betting on F–35B continuation in the next 2 years. It is time for an F–35B plan B.

Here’s the entire article.

He mentions a lot of the counter arguments against buying F-22s in his article but still, I’ve got to wonder how much it will cost to upgrade the F-22s avionics and sensors with those found on the JSF. Furthermore, how well would the Raptor stand up to being stationed at those expeditionary sites mentioned by Cannon? Don’t forget that the tooling for F-22 long-lead parts is already being shut down as Lockheed gets ready to end production of the jet. There are more questions to be asked, so go wild with this one.