Image by Łukasz Golowanow

The Air Force has been clear about its plans to retire the F-22 Raptor in the 2030s, seemingly drawing a parallel between it and another legendary air-to-air fighter that flew into the sunset sooner than many had hoped — the Navy’s F-14 Tomcat.

You may be asking yourself, how are older jets like the F-15 and F-16 still in service if the F-22 is aging out of relevance? It’s a fair question — and like the Tomcat in the early 2000s, the answer comes down to a simple matter of cost versus capacity.

Unlike the Raptor, which has been out of production for more than a decade, the F-15 and F-16 never really stopped rolling off the assembly line floor. America’s new F-15EX, for instance, benefits from a breadth of avionics upgrades that required the same sort of hardware changes that seem prohibitively expensive for the Raptor — but most of those upgrades were actually funded over time by foreign customers like Qatar and Saudi Arabia...

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