F-22 Raptor Makes First Flight, Still Not Ready for Prime Time?

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A Brief History

On September 7, 1997, the latest and greatest of America’s jet fighter air superiority fighter planes first took to the sky.  Incredibly complex, sophisticated, and of course, expensive, the Lockheed F-22 Raptor was designed to be a stealthy fighter that could take down enemy fighters and bombers without even being detected.  Despite its steep price, the fighter would be worth the cost if it could deliver on its promises.  Could it deliver?  Read on…

Digging Deeper

Back in World War II, several nations attempted to produce fighter aircraft specifically designed to out fight other fighters and provide their forces with air superiority, hence the name, air superiority fighter.  Other fighters were designed as “interceptors” with the idea of intercepting and shooting down enemy bombers, a role that required speed and firepower, but not necessarily maneuverability, rate of climb and acceleration needed to win dogfights.  In the Korean War Era (1950-1953) the US Air Force pitted its North American F-86 Sabre against the Soviet MiG-15 in the air superiority role, but later American fighters were not optimized for the dogfighting role until the advent of the McDonnel Douglas F-15 Eagle in 1976.  The F-15 was a tremendous success in the air-to-air combat role, with an incredible record of over 100 enemy aircraft downed with not even a single F-15 shot down by an enemy plane!  The US hoped to duplicate this incredible level of success by designing a successor to the F-15 for the air superiority role.

USAF F-15C during Operation Noble Eagle patrol, 2007.  U.S. Air Force photograph by Staff Sgt. Samuel Rogers.

With the advances made in anti-radar and anti-infrared detection technology, known as “stealth,” the US fielded the F-117 Nighthawk (1983) and the B-2 Spirit bomber (1997).  These 2 groundbreaking stealth aircraft were not built to shoot down enemy planes, but to enter enemy airspace undetected and deliver bombs without getting themselves shot down.  At this role, both planes have been excellent.  Incorporating stealth technology into a fighter aircraft just seemed like the normal and natural next step in the evolution of warplanes.  No other country at the time was fielding stealth aircraft, both because of a lack of technology and tremendous costs to build and maintain such planes.  (This status quo would change with the introduction of the Chinese J-31 stealth fighter expected in 2019.  Also expected to enter service in 2019 is the Russian Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighter.)

Thus, American airplane designers created the F-22, which was not introduced into service until a whopping 8 years after its first flight!  For reference as to how long a lag between first flight and introduction into service 8 years is, the North American P-51 Mustang made its first flight in October of 1940 and entered service in January of 1942, a period of only about 15 months.  Into this equation, consider that the YF-22 first flew in 1990!  First flying prototype to in service aircraft, a 15 year stretch!  While engineers and military strategists tried to work out the deficiencies in the design and incorporate evolving technology, potential enemy countries had a lot of time to come up with an answer to the threat to their air forces the F-22 would offer once it became operational.  And deficiencies it had, starting with a price tag of $150 million apiece.  (F-15’s had cost just under $30 million each by 1998.)  Problems with the development timetable and soaring price limited production to only 187 operational F-22’s out of a planned buy of 750, forcing the extended service of older aircraft such as the F-15.  American designers sought to create an aircraft clearly superior to any the Russians or Chinese could produce and lavished as much money and technology on the F-22 program as thought needed to achieve that goal.  (The J-31’s cost is an estimated $70 million each and the Su-57 is a bargain at $42 million apiece.  Perhaps the cost indicates a disparity in performance, or perhaps not.  Time and combat will tell.)  When the F-22 was designed, no enemy of similar capability existed, and many politicians and military planners questioned the need and role of such a high tech and expensive warbird.

Two F-22s during flight testing, the upper one being the first EMD F-22, Raptor 4001.  U. S. Air Force Photography.

The biggest problems with the F-22 from the start have centered on the pilot and the life support environment created to keep the human pilot alive and sharp.  Reports of neurological and sensory illnesses as well as chronic coughs and respiratory problems indicated a problem with the oxygen delivery system.  Despite a 4 month period during 2011 in which the F-22 fleet was grounded in order to address the problems, when flying resumed, so did the problems.  Restrictions on the type of maneuvers allowed in order to prevent the oxygen related problems meant lower performance parameters, a crushing blow to an airplane designed to have the utmost in aerial performance.  Pilots quickly took a dislike to the F-22 and feared the damage the plane might be doing to their health.

Problems with the oxygen and other systems were allegedly fixed in 2013, with pilots once again permitted to perform the full range of aerial maneuvers the F-22 is capable of.  Speaking of capabilities, the F-22 is not as fast as the F-15, with a top speed of about Mach 2.25 (compared to Mach 2.5 for the F-15), but the F-22 can achieve supersonic speed without the use of an afterburner, capable of “supercruise” at Mach 1.8, allowing stealthy supersonic flight, a first.  Armed with the ubiquitous 20mm Gatling type automatic cannon, with a rate of fire of 6000 rounds per minute, the F-22 can quickly go through its load of 480 rounds of 20mm ammunition.  The F-22 can also carry the full array of American air-to-air missiles and can be equipped with racks to carry ground attack bombs, rockets, and/or missiles.

F-22 with external weapons pylons.  This image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties.

The F-22 first saw combat in 2014, though of the air-to-ground variety, dropping bombs on the enemy in Syria.  No publicly known instances of air-to-air combat involving the F-22 has yet occurred, but with current deployments and operations such combat seems inevitable at some point, and for now it would appear that the F-22 would indeed prevail in such combat.  We think.

Meanwhile, the US has not closed the book on stealth fighter planes, and is producing the F-35 Lightning II in variants for the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps.  The Air Force version is of conventional take off and landing, while the Navy model is adapted for use on aircraft carriers.  The Marine model has a vertical take off and landing capability similar to that of the AV-8 Harrier that the F-35 is replacing.  Is the F-22 expensive?  The F-35 program is the costliest program in world military history, costing the US taxpayers an incredible $1.5 trillion!  The price of individual aircraft varies with the model, ranging from $90 million to $115 million each.  At least the F-35 will be sold to some of our allies, perhaps recouping some of the cost.  (Note: The F-35 is also a “stealth” aircraft, but not of the extreme type that the F-22 is.)

F-35A Lightning II.  U.S. Air Force photograph by Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen.

Is the F-22 Raptor “ready for prime time?”  Probably, but we will have to wait for it to develop a combat track record to say for sure.  Do you believe it will justify expectations?

Question for students (and subscribers): Are the prices of the F-22 and F-35 worth the cost to American taxpayers? Why or why not?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Dorr, Robert. Air Power Abandoned: Robert Gates, the F-22 Raptor and the Betrayal of America’s Air Force. Robert F. Dorr, 2015.

Grainge, Jon. F-22 Raptor. Blurb, 2017.

Holder, Bill and Mike Wallace. Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor: An Illustrated History. Schiffer Publishing, 1998.

The featured image in this article, a U.S. Air Force photograph by TSgt Ben Bloker of Lt. Col. James Hecker (front) and Lt. Col. Evan Dertein lining up their F/A-22 Raptor aircraft behind a KC-10 Extender to refuel while en route to Hill Air Force Base, Utah, is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.