The last F-22 Raptor to be built for the U.S. Air Force, tail number 4195, rolled off Lockheed Martin's Marietta, Ga., production line on Dec. 13, bringing to a close the procurement of the stealthy, fifth-generation air superiority fighter jet.
The final Raptor will enter a series of company and government flight tests, said Jeff Babione, Lockheed's F-22 program manager. It also will receive its final coatings - an integral part of the twin-engine jet's stealth capability.
Tail 4195 will then be delivered in May to the 3rd Wing's 525th Fighter Squadron commanded by Lt. Col. Paul "Max" Moga at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. It will become that squadron's "flagship," replacing an earlier loss.
The new jet is the 187th production aircraft to roll off the line; eight developmental Raptors were also built, Babione said. Counting the eight test planes, 4195 is the 195th F-22 to be built, he said.
Once two production aircraft losses are factored in, the Air Force will have 185 operational jets.
"It's sad to see the end of the Raptor, but given the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the state of the economy, it stood little chance," said analyst Richard Aboulafia at the Teal Group, Fairfax, Va.
Babione, who has been with the Raptor program since 1988, said that manufacturing the aircraft has changed drastically since the first test aircraft, 4001, was produced. When that first plane was built, it had the feel of a custom-built, one-off prototype compared with the newest jet that just rolled off the production line, he said.
The workmanship, skills and procedures have come a long way, Babione said. There was a 78 percent learning curve improvement over the years, he said.
Today, "when you see the airplane on the line, it appears to be this very impressive, fine piece of workmanship," Babione said. "You just get this stark contrast from when we started to build them and now."
Lockheed and the Air Force are storing the production-line tooling and preserving the manufacturing know-how, Babione said. While the other F-22 manufacturing sites have been packed up and stored, the Marietta factory has yet to begin crating up the assembly line. That process will start next year, he said.
Aboulafia said there is still hope the Raptor line could be restarted.
"Given the potential of the aircraft, the line preservation efforts, and an uncertain strategic picture, it could one day follow the C-5 or B-1 and be reborn in a few years," he said.
For Lockheed, the shutdown of the production line is simply the beginning of a new chapter of sustaining and upgrading the Raptor.
"This is not the end, rather beginning of a new phase of this great program," Babione said.
A host of upgrades will be coming over the years. The Air Force is already working on adding new capabilities, and part of its Increment 3.1 and 3.2 upgrades will add synthetic aperture radar and the 250-pound Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) capability to the jet. It also will receive the AIM-9X and AIM-120D air-to-air missiles and other capabilities.
Increment 3.1 is a hardware and software upgrade that is focused on air-to-ground missions. This upgrade includes adding the ability to carry eight SDBs, new air-to-ground radar modes, and electronic attack capability. Increment 3.1 is currently being fielded to the operational fleet and will continue to be fielded until all operational Block 30/35 F-22 aircraft are modified by the end of 2016, Air Combat Command spokesman Scott Knuteson wrote in an emailed statement.
"This increment is designed to defeat air or surface threats in any threat environment; operational test and evaluation is nearly complete," Knuteson wrote. "So far, precision geolocation accuracy exceeds the requirement by 15%, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) map accuracy exceeds specifications by 55%, and SDB enables a 200% increase in air-to-ground weapons reach."
Next comes Increment 3.2A, which is a software-only upgrade that includes Link 16 receive capability upgrades, combat identification, and electronic protection. "The plan at this point is to field it between 2014 and 2016 --some jets will transition straight from Increment 2.0 to 3.2A," Knuteson wrote.
Increment 3.2B will include upgraded weapons, such as the AIM-120D, AIM-9X, and enhanced precision targeting, Knuteson wrote. "This is expected to be fielded in 2017-2020."
Lockheed is working closely with the Air Force on upgrading the plane, Babione said.
Operational since 2005, the Raptor was originally envisioned as a counter to hordes of Soviet fighters during a hypothetical conflict over Europe. With this in mind, the jet was designed to be faster and more maneuverable than anything else in the sky.
With its two Pratt & Whiney F119 engines, which produce about 38,000 pounds of thrust each, the Raptor has the ability to cruise at speeds of about Mach 1.8 without afterburners. With its afterburners on, the jet can reach a maximum speed of about Mach 2.2 and fly at 60,000 feet, an altitude limited only by Air Force regulations.
The sheer kinematic performance of the F-22 is unlikely to be equaled any time soon; next-generation aircraft are more likely to focus on weapons.
"The focus in the future will be on improving our weapons and their ability to attack different kinds of targets at extended ranges and intercept even more energetic targets," Babione said.