Next-generation air superiority fighter.
First conceived in the midst of the Cold War arms race with the Soviet Union, the F-22 grew out of U.S. fears that future Russian fighters might prove superior to the F-15 Eagle. Experts called for the creation of an advanced tactical fighter in 1981, and after competition between various manufacturers the Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a contract to build the plane in 1991. Assembly of the first test model began in 1994, the aircraft flew for the first time in 1997, and in 1999 the Air Force approved a low-rate production plan that would put eight Raptors into advanced flight testing by the end of 2001. The Air Force hoped to purchase 339 F-22’s and to form the first operational Raptor squadron in 2005.
Although the F-22 is fully capable of attacking ground targets with precision, its primary mission is to destroy enemy aircraft at either close or long range under any weather conditions. It incorporates a number of advanced technologies, including a stealth airframe design which utilizes flattened surfaces and special materials to make the aircraft difficult to detect with radar. The Raptor is powered by two revolutionary Pratt & Whitney F-119-PW-100 engines, which allow it to fly for extended periods at supersonic speed (beyond the speed of sound) without using its afterburner. An afterburner essentially pumps raw fuel into the flame of a jet engine, generating great thrust and speed in exchange for a great increase in fuel consumption. This ability to supercruise allows the Raptor to fly farther and faster while using less fuel than any jet fighter to date. In addition, the F-22 uses thrust vectoring, in which the nozzle of each engine moves to help the plane turn, climb, or dive, to greatly enhance maneuverability. The F-22 also has an integrated avionics suite in which all the computers on the plane, such as weapons, radar, and flight control, function well together, with a central integrated processor one hundred times more powerful than the computers on the space shuttle. These technologies allow the single pilot of an F-22 to see enemy aircraft at long range and destroy them with very little risk of being detected, or to close with and eliminate adversaries in a close-range dogfight under any circumstances. They represent an enormous advance over previous aircraft.
The F-22 carries a 20-millimeter Gatling gun and air-to-air missiles or ground-attack ordnance in an internal weapons bay which reduces drag and enhances stealth characteristics. Extra weapons or fuel tanks may be carried on external racks if necessary, though this arrangement makes the aircraft more visible to enemy radar. A normal weapons load would include six radar-guided AIM-120 medium-range air-to-air missiles or two AIM-120’s and two GBU-32 joint direct attack munitions (JDAM). In either case, the Raptor could also carry two AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles on its wingtips.
Supporters of the F-22 point to its unparalleled capability and argue the United States should make the aircraft operational as soon as possible. They maintain that the current fleet of Air Force F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons are old and increasingly difficult to maintain, and that advances in computers, radar, and surface-to-air missiles make existing U.S. aircraft more and more vulnerable to the air defenses of potential enemies.
Critics counter that cost overruns and production delays have made the F-22 the most expensive fighter plane in history, and that the end of the Cold War and the diminishing aerial threat posed by other nations means the United States can delay production of the aircraft for at least a decade. They point to current estimates which place the cost of the entire Raptor program at approximately $62.7 billion for 339 planes (or $187 million each), and to studies which show that F-15’s and F-16’s will remain superior to the aircraft of any potential adversary through perhaps 2014. They suggest that Raptor production be delayed while the Air Force purchases additional aircraft based on current designs, and then accelerated when the threat posed by possible enemies is commensurate with the Raptor’s cost. No matter who wins this argument, the Raptor seems certain to enter service in at least limited numbers between 2005 and 2007.
The Raptor’s length is 62 feet, 1 inch, and its height is 16 feet, 5 inches, with a wingspan of 44 feet, 6 inches. Its maximum takeoff weight is 60,000 pounds, although its normal takeoff weight is yet to be determined. Its maximum cruise speed is Mach 1.5 (one-and-a-half times the speed of sound) or better, with an absolute maximum speed of Mach 1.7. Its maximum altitude is 50,000 feet, although its range is not yet known. The plane has two Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 engines, each rated at approximately 35,000 pounds of thrust.
Aronstein, David C., Michael J. Hirschberg, and Albert C. Piccirillo. Advanced Tactical Fighter to F-22 Raptor: Origins of the Twenty-first Century Air Dominance Fighter. Reston, Va.: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1998. A richly detailed technical history of the origins and development of the F-22 from the early 1980’s to the present. Pace, Steve. F-22 Raptor: America’s Next Lethal War Machine. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999. An accessible overview of the F-22 aimed at general aviation enthusiasts. Sweetman, Bill. F-22 Raptor. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1998. This brief work emphasizes photographs and provides highlights of the F-22’s history and capabilities.
Air Force, U.S.