After nearly 20 years of development and $65 billion, the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter entered service with the U.S. Air Force in 2005. But it wasn’t until this month that the first squadron of Lockheed Martin-built F-22s was fully combat-ready with ground-mapping radars and a flexible bomb payload — standard equipment on most Air Force strike jets. The cost to bring the roughly 150 front-line Raptors up to this normal level of capability: an extra $8 billion, boosting the per-jet cost from $350 million to almost $400 million.
The belated outfitting is symptomatic of the Air Force’s “spiral” approach to warplane development, and a foreboding sign for the Raptor’s successor, the smaller F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Rather than wait until a jet design is fully developed, the Air Force sends early models out into the world as soon as they meet a minimum standard for combat performance. The planes get extra enhancements over time to bring them up to full spec. While this approach ensures the flying branch gets some utility out of its new aircraft as soon as possible, it also obscures the true time and investment needed to fully develop a new warplane.