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North America, Western Europe and Oceania , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

Why America’s Adversaries Fear the F-22; What Makes the Raptor Special

July 13th - 2018

Entering service in December 2005, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor quickly became the most iconic Western fighter jet of the 21st century and was set to guarantee American air superiority for many years to come. With development having begun in the waning years of the Cold War, in response to the Soviet Union’s development of the Su-27 Flanker which prompted the U.S. military to request a more capable fighter to replace its F-15 and F-14 jets in an air superiority role, the platform evolved considerably over a quarter of century from the drawing board to its induction. The F-22 design borrowed heavily from the F-15, but applied a number of cutting edge new technologies including stealth, pioneered by the F-117 Nighthawk strike fighter, new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, two dimensional thrust vectoring for enhanced manoeuvrability and new AIM-120C air to air missiles.

While the F-22 was not the wold’s first stealth aircraft, its stealth capabilities were far above and beyond anything that had come before it and the Raptor remains most effective radar evading fighter in the world today far surpassing newer platforms such as the F-35 and Russian Su-57. Despite requiring a heavily specialised airframe, the F-22 did not significantly compromise its combat performance relative to the F-15 - with its designers managing to develop a fighter of approximately the same size as its predecessor which not only could perform more effectively with a tailored radar cross section reducing profile, but was also far more compact in order to store all its fuel and munitions internally. The American fighter was the first to combine advanced stealth technology with thrust vectoring and other air superiority capabilities, posing an unprecedented threat to enemy fighters which not only could fight and manoeuvre better than its predecessors - but could do so while remaining extremely difficult to target effectively by radar guided munitions. The Raptor's reduced heat emissions from its Pratt and Whitney F119 engines meanwhile made it a challenge to target even for shorter ranged heat seeking munitions. Combined with its high 20km operational altitude inherited from the F-15 and its considerable Mach 2.25 speed, this made the Raptor the most survivable fighter in the world.

One remarkable aspect of the F-22 program was that, despite considerable delays, it was considerably ahead of all competition - largely a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and sharp contraction of the Russian economy which had been the only near peer competitor in the field of military aviation. In 2014 the Russian Air Force inducted the first Su-35 ‘4++ generation’ fighters into service, which alongside the deployment of new anti stealth air defence systems was seen as Moscow’s response to the Raptor. The Su-35 lacked the F-22’s stealth or its advanced radar capabilities - but heavily compensated for this with superior air to air missiles, a larger missile payload, an infra red search and track system which the Raptor lacked, cutting edge computer architecture and electronic warfare systems which surpassed those of the F-22, and three dimensional thrust vectoring for further enhanced manoeuvrability. This would be followed three years later by a more equal challenger, the Chinese Chengdu J-20 fifth generation air superiority fighter, which was to a far greater extent was a true analogue to the Raptor combining stealth with air superiority capabilities in much the same way. With China investing heavily in improving the stealth capabilities of the J-20, the fighter may well match or surpass the F-22’s survivability in the near future.

The F-22 design revolutionised air superiority with impacts for military aviation across the world, but ultimately due to its cost and the U.S. Obama administration’s failure to foresee a return to what is today termed ‘great power competition’ and the reemergence of major near peer military adversaries the program was terminated with just 25% of the U.S. Air Force’s needs met. Critical in the decision to terminate the F-22 production was not only the high acquisition cost of the fighter, but the operational cost. While overall a success, the program’s most significant shortcoming was its failure to meet one key design criteria - to make an aircraft less costly to operate and easier to maintain than the F-15. The F-22 remains to this day the most costly fighter to operate in the world by a considerable margin, while its extreme maintenance requirements restrict it to flying a sortie less than once a week. This made flying and maintaining the Raptor considerably more difficult and expensive than its predecessor which would have made a large fleet of 750 Raptors, as originally planned, a massive and constant financial drain on the limited resources of the U.S. military.

As a result of its cost and its specialised role as an air superiority platform, the considerably lighter, cheaper, and lower maintenance F-35 - a fifth generation to the F-16 Fighting Falcon as the F-22 was to the F-15 - is set to be relied on far more heavily by the U.S. military. This is despite the F-35’s combat capabilities across the board, including its speed, operational altitude, stealth capabilities, payload, manoeuvrability, and speed, all paling in comparison to those of the elite F-22. Terminating the Raptor program had far more significant implications than just reducing the numbers in service - in that it also considerably undermined the future viability of the cutting edge fighter. With the aircraft out of production, efforts to modernise existing platforms have stalled considerably - leaving the platform at serious risk of being outmatched by fast advancing rival air superiority fighters such as the J-20. Ultimately the Raptor remains by far the most capable Western fighter ever designed and will likely remain so throughout the 2020s. The fighter has the potential to remain highly viable for decades to come, but with the United States today increasingly focusing its efforts towards developing a sixth generation air superiority fighter to replace it in the near future the aircraft’s days as the key guarantor of American air superiority may well be numbered. 

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