Update: corrected attribution.
Big story this morning in the Washington Post about F-22 maintainability, blending the paper's own reporting with the recently unveiled False Claims Act suit and focusing on problems with maintenance of the F-22's "low observable systems" - that is, the coatings on the fighter's skin and canopy. The first inklings of such a problem emerged more than a year ago and we covered them at the time, but the Post story has some new details. A few observations:
Basics of the F-22's stealth technology are covered very well in this Lockheed Martin paper. Essentially, the designers tried to avoid the massive burden of stealth on the F-117 and B-2 - acceptable because the F-117 was a special mission aircraft and (as originally planned) the B-2 would fly only one operational sortie - by reducing the need to remove LO materials or "break the bubble". Interior components were designed to be reliable. Systems that required routine access were arranged to be reached through the landing gear or weapon bay doors, or grouped behind a few latched doors. LO materials were designed to be durable and easily restored - and it appears to be in this realm that goals have not been achieved.
False Claims Act proceedings have to be taken with one grain of salt - but it's a very big one: the whistleblower or "relator" is entitled to a share of the damages recovered by the government. And we're not talking about a couple of sick mules any more. One guy just split the thick end of $50 million with his lawyers. The F-22 case is plausible, but not proven.
Another caveat: a lot of other people have a vested interest in rubbishing the F-22, because they don't want Congress taking money from their programs (particularly the F-35) to extend production. So expect people to be painting a gloomy picture, which is always possible with maintenance issues.
Take an analogy: if I own an old Triumph TR6 and have a contract with Alf the mechanic that covers a fixed eight labour hours per month, it's going to spend a lot of time sitting in the garage. But if I want the car next week, I can always pay Alf some overtime and it will be ready to go. Also, I'm always having engine problems. My mate in the TR6 club has a low-mileage motor in the back of his garage, but he wants more for it than I want to pay right now.
So if the USAF wanted to up its mission capable rates, it could well be that it could do it by spending more money on maintenance. Or it could use some of the (allegedly) better materials developed for the F-35 on the F-22 - the service spent a ton of money on new materials for the B-2, for example.
Final question: What does this imply for the F-35? The good news is that it may not share all the same materials with the F-22, and it will not expose them to the same airspeeds and temperatures. But it means that we have to take JSF leaders on trust when they say that modeling, simulation and lab testing have improved, because that's what apparently broke down in the case of the F-22 - and in relative terms, real-world testing is running later on the F-35.