The U.S. Air Force is not ready to say just how many F-22 Raptors left behind at Tyndall Air Force Base sit damaged or crippled following Hurricane Michael's catastrophic incursion on the Florida installation.
A service spokeswoman told Military.com on Monday that officials are still assessing the damage and cannot comment on the issue until the evaluation is complete.
Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright were briefed by base officials as they toured Tyndall facilities on Sunday. The leaders concurred there was severe damage, but were hopeful that air operations on base may one day resume.
"Our maintenance professionals will do a detailed assessment of the F-22 Raptors and other aircraft before we can say with certainty that damaged aircraft can be repaired and sent back into the skies," the service leaders said in a joint statement. "However, damage was less than we feared and preliminary indications are promising."
Officials have yet to describe what kind of maintenance was taking place on the stealth jets that led officials to leave them at Tyndall instead of moving them to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where the other F-22s from the 325th Fighter Wing were evacuated to last week.
It is rumored that anywhere from seven to 17 aircraft may have been damaged by the Category 4 storm. Photos of F-22s left behind in shredded hangars that have surfaced on social media have some in the aviation community theorizing that a significant chunk of the F-22 fleet -- roughly 10 percent -- may be left stagnant for good.
The Air Force has not confirmed any of these numbers.
In the meantime, the unspecified number of F-22s that were able to escape the storm to Wright-Patterson have now been moved to Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, Air Combat Command said Monday. Officials have not said how long the aircraft will remain there.
Experts say this is a perfect argument for why the Air Force should have invested more heavily in its greatest "insurance policy" in an air-to-air fight.
"This storm shows they should have purchased more," Richard Aboulafia, vice president and analyst at the Teal Group, told Military.com in a phone call Monday. "If history ever does resume, and a near-peer fight is in our future, you need to keep the skies clean."
While some aircraft have been moved out of active status for testing purposes, the Air Force has 183 of the Lockheed Martin Corp.-made F-22s in its inventory today. More than 160 belong to active-duty units; the remainder are with Air National Guard elements. Four aircraft were lost or severely damaged between 2004 and 2012.
Production was cut short in 2009, with original plans to buy 381 fighters scaled down to a buy of just 187.
As with any small fleet, the limited number of F-22s has presented its own challenges over the years.
According to Defense News' fiscal 2017 statistics, F-22s had a 49.01 percent mission-capable rate, meaning less than half were flyable at any given time. In 2014, more than three-quarters of F-22s were deemed mission capable.
In July, the Government Accountability Office found that the F-22 is frequently underutilized, mainly due to maintenance challenges and fewer opportunities for pilot training, as well as the fleet's inefficient organizational structure.
But the recent misfortune does not mean the F-22 is no longer valuable. In fact, it may be the opposite, experts say.
So far, the U.S. has not seen what the F-22 is truly capable of, one defense analyst told Military.com on Monday. It remains, like intercontinental ballistic missiles, a capability for assurance and deterrence. And that's reason enough for it to be prized for any fleet.
"Remember the example of the B-36 [Peacemaker], the bomber that was supposed to be so intimidating, no one would mess with us," said the Washington, D.C.-based defense analyst, referencing the Air Force's largest wing spanned strategic bomber with intercontinental range, used between 1948 to 1959.
"It was solely intended for strategic conflict, and so never flew an operational mission. Was that a success? Was it worth its money? The same kind of question can apply to the ICBM fleet," the defense analyst, who spoke on background, said.
The analyst continued, "F-22 has yet to be in the fight it was designed for. So there's no way to say if it's a good value or not. You certainly don't need it to blow up drug labs....[But] you don't ever want to use them" for what they're intended because that means you're in a high-scale war.
"Until such time that it gets to perform its intended function, value is hard to evaluate. [But] that doesn't necessarily mean they're a bad investment," the analyst added.
Aboulafia agreed, but added now that there may be even fewer Raptors, the clock is ticking down for the next best thing. And it may not be the Pentagon's other fifth-generation fighter, the F-35.
"I would tell the Air Force to...cut back on F-35 [Joint Strike Fighter] purchases and move forward with [Next-Generation Air Dominance]," Aboulafia said.
The service in 2016 debuted its Air Superiority 2030 roadmap, which includes the sustainment of old fighters and new jets such as the F-22 and F-35, but also outlines next-gen air dominance, defined as the use of advanced fighter aircraft, sensors or weapons -- or all of the above -- in a growing and unpredictable threat environment.
Officials say the Air Force's next-generation platform may defy traditional categorization, with service leaders opting for a "family of systems" approach, but the aviation community remains eager for news of an advanced fighter.
"Either an all-new air vehicle or a hybrid," Aboulafia said of what he'd expect from a potential sixth-generation fighter.
His reasoning? Because the F-35 may not be able to step up to the F-22's designated role.
"The F-35 is great for situational awareness, great for ground attack. Is it the best for air-to-air [combat]? Far from it," Aboulafia said.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.