The F-22 Out Front

Aug. 1, 1998

Everything that fighter pilots, tacticians, and engineers learned about air combat in the last 50 years has been distilled into the F-22 Raptor, the Air Force’s fighter for the 21st century. The lessons learned the hard way in Korea, Vietnam, and places like the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon-the pricelessness of superior situational awareness and agility, shooting before being seen, fooling or eluding ground threats, reliability, “speed is life”-have been translated into about 34,000 pounds of titanium, aluminum, and wonder materials that fly like a dream.

Superfast and maneuverable, stealthy, and providing its pilot with instantly comprehendible information about everything going on around him, the F-22 incorporates so many fighter “firsts” that it will be the benchmark of air combat power for at least a quarter-century.

Almost every year since the program’s inception, however, the F-22 has been hounded by budget-cutters in Congress and the Pentagon who question the Air Force’s need for such a powerful fighter. Especially now, with defense budgets at near-historic postwar lows, critics hold the Raptor up as a prime example of an expensive program that doesn’t know the Cold War is over, a case of technological overkill for the fighter threats that may pop up in the coming decade.

The F-22 program has been cut, delayed, or restructured so many times in the last seven years that most observers have lost count. Originally pegged at a buy of 750 airplanes, the planned inventory slipped to 650, then 600, then 442, and now, with the Quadrennial Defense Review, 339–slightly more than three wing’s worth. As the buy has descended, unit cost has climbed, and some members of Congress worry that the F-22 may price itself out of existence. As Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) recently remarked in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, “We must be vigilant that the program not go the way of previous programs” such as the B-2, “where the sticker shock overwhelms the capability improvements.”

To underline the point, Congress has imposed a $40.9 billion program cost cap on the F-22, much as was done with the B-1B and B-2 programs. If the project exceeds the cap, the Air Force must fund the overage from other accounts.

With the reduced buy, the Pentagon also cut the peak production rate of the F-22 from 48 per year to 36 a year, reduced the engine buy from 1,027 to 777, and cut the initial production batch from 70 to 58 aircraft.

Far From Overkill

Air Force leaders do not see the F-22 as overkill. Far from it. Instead, they see the airplane as simply having the power to deliver what the nation has come to expect-total control of the air in any armed conflict involving US forces. Rather than an answer to the new generation of highly capable and even somewhat stealthy fighters now coming into service around the world–such as the Russian Su-37, French Rafale, and EF2000–the Raptor is designed to counter the airplanes and missiles that will come after them.

“We are not building the F-22 for the threats we face in 2000 or 2005,” asserted Maj. Gen. (sel.) Bruce A. Carlson, director of operational requirements, USAF’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Air and Space Operations. “We are building it for the threats we will face in 2020,” when large numbers of F-22s will be in the force.

Carlson noted that the F-15-USAF’s current top air superiority fighter-was designed in the 1960s, tested and produced in the 1970s, upgraded in the 1980s, and finally did battle on behalf of the US in the Gulf War of 1991. There it racked up an impressive tally of 29 air-to-air kills with no losses, against state-of-the-art MiG-29s and other capable fighters. Likewise, the F-22 will have to be able to dominate the battlespace well into its middle-age years.

“We don’t have the resources for building a new fighter every five to 10 years,” Carlson said. “We don’t want to come back” from a battle in 2010 “with our tail between our legs and say, ‘Well, we just didn’t want to spend the money on a real capable fighter’ ” back in the 1990s.

“The F-15 dominated during its lifetime, and the F-22 … is being designed to do the same thing,” he added.

There is no point in building a “match” for today’s best potential enemy fighters, Carlson said. The Air Force needs an airplane that can defeat large numbers of enemy airplanes swiftly and overwhelmingly.

Parity Has Arrived

“The question is, are there planes out there right now that can threaten us? And the answer is, yes,” Carlson said. “With the F-15, we’re at parity right now” with the Russian Flanker family of airplanes, which have unnervingly good acceleration, range, radar power, and agility.

“Put a good missile on that plane, and it becomes a hell of a threat to most of our aircraft and the F-15,” he continued. Moreover, “the Flanker has been licensed to other countries,” so they will show up in more and more places. As for the MiG-29, he said, “They’re everywhere. [Russia is] selling them cheap.” As time passes, better fighters are showing up in many places where the US might get into a fight, and there’s “no telling” who the Eurofighter or Rafale “may be sold to.”

The USAF emphasis on expeditionary operations will make it more difficult for the F-15 to dominate as time goes on and the new threat airplanes multiply in number.

“When I go to war, I’m an expeditionary force,” Carlson said. Because of worldwide commitments, perhaps “I can only take a wing and a half” of F-22s to a hot spot. Since even a fairly small air force can afford “to buy two wings’ worth” of topline fighters that can match the F-15, the air battle could be a draw, with disastrous consequences for an American ground force at the end of a long supply line from the continental US.

“If you’re at parity, you’re not going to win big, and you’re not going to guarantee air dominance to the theater commander, so you can land troops … and equipment on the shore,” Carlson said. “We don’t want to lose to some third-rate air force just because they happen to live close to the fight and can throw a few wings of good airplanes at us,” he asserted.

The F-22 is not only needed in order to be able to win in an expeditionary mode where it will likely be outnumbered. The F-15 is now out of production and getting old. Its age and associated problems-airframe stress, corrosion, water intrusion, and so forth-will only get worse as time goes on.

“We don’t have much option but to replace the F-15s,” according to Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Air Force Chief of Staff.

The F-15 has numerous “geriatric” problems, Ryan said, and given that “we have to keep them” for at least another decade as the F-22 is tested, refined, and produced, “it worries you.”

The average age of fighters in the Air Force is creeping toward 20 years, Ryan noted.

“We’ve never had an average age in our fighter fleet of 20 years, and … we’ll get there before we turn it around,” he said. “That’s going into territory we haven’t been in before.”

If the F-22 is further delayed, it would pose enormous problems for the Air Force, Ryan said.

“Fighter aircraft are built for a certain number of [service] hours on the airframe. And after that, we have to do almost a remanufacture of the airplane to put it back in flying condition because of the stress and strain of the fighter maneuvers,” he explained. The Air Force has not budgeted a remanufacturing effort for the F-15 because it would be highly expensive and do nothing to increase its capability to meet modern threats, particularly those posed by ground defenses and surface-to-air missiles.

“We screw around with the [F-22] program anymore and cut [it], … and unit costs go up significantly,” Ryan said. “Economically, it doesn’t make any sense to take it down any lower.”

Rising Risk

The Air Force has been criticized by some members of Congress who pointed out that the service backed away from its previous insistence that four wings-442 airplanes-was absolutely the lowest number with which it could accomplish the mission of fighting two near-simultaneous Major Theater Wars. In the Quadrennial Defense Review the Air Force acceded to a program cut to only 339 airplanes, or about three wings.

Ryan acknowledged that “the risk goes up” with the smaller buy but that the proposal was based on scenarios revolving around a US operation in Southwest Asia at the same time it was involved in one in Northeast Asia.

“We have force-sized ourselves on those two regional contingencies, and then our hedge against the unknown on force size is making sure that what we have is quality capability,” Ryan noted.

If 1.5 wings of F-22s looks to be insufficient, Ryan said the Air Force might convert some of the youngest F-15E strike airplanes to an air superiority role to supply the missing fourth wing. The airplanes would not be “first-in” types, leaving that mission to the stealthy F-22, but could be “pylon airplanes” patrolling the airspace after enemy fighters and air defenses had been largely suppressed.

In addition, Ryan observed that the F-22 production line need not shut down at 339 airplanes, especially if world events dictate a larger force. Ryan observed that the F-117 and F-15E strike airplanes will need replacement before the F-22 line closes, and the Raptor, modified for a broader ground attack capability, might be the best solution to replacing them.

Gen. Richard E. Hawley, commander of Air Combat Command, told reporters in Washington recently that the F-22, built for punishing air combat and stealth “equal to or even better than” that of the F-117, “might make it a natural” to replace that airplane. And, just as the F-15E retains all of the dogfighting prowess of the F-15C, the dedicated strike version of the F-22 could augment the air superiority force at need.

“Just as the F-15 turned out to be a great basic airplane to turn into an interdictor, and we converted that into the F-15E for a relatively small engineering and manufacturing development investment, the F-22, too, may turn out to be a great platform, just because of its basic air superiority design,” said Hawley. “It tends to lend itself well to that interdiction mission, with minor modification.”

Miniature Munitions

Moreover, munitions technology is advancing rapidly, and all indications are that, within a decade or less, a 1,000- or 500-pound bomb will be able to pack as much punch as the 2,000-pound bombs of today.

The F-22 was designed to be able to carry two 1,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions, but the “small smart bomb” research initiative may mean that it could carry as many as four-or even eight-bombs with as much destructive power, Hawley observed. Such a development would make it unnecessary for F-22s to undergo much modification to make it a workhorse strike airplane.

The ACC chief explained, “Those miniature munitions … are ideally suited to stealthy platforms, because it allows you to put more weapons in that internal weapons bay, which you have to do-anything that carries a weapon externally is not stealthy, by definition-so it allows you to carry more weapons internally, cover more targets, more aim points within the target set. So those developments will … determine the shape of that future interdictor and whether or not the F-22 will have to have significant modifications or just minor mods.”

He went on to note, “Some people say you could get as many as eight bombs in the F-22 bomb bay pretty much as it’s currently configured. That’s a pretty good payload, if you can get the right punch out of those miniature munitions, and the lab work indicates we will.”

He also believes that the Air Force will need to replace its F-15s, F-117s, and F-15Es on “a one-to-one” basis, “as long as our force structure requirements stay the way they are now for the next decade or so.” The F-15, he noted, is “one of the most heavily tasked airplanes” in the Air Force. “We’re drawing down lots of things, but the F-15 is not one of them.”

Also affecting the eventual buy will be the changing nature of the threat. The F-15E, he said, “could fall victim … to a threat more robust than it can handle.”

Carlson noted that “there will be two more QDRs before we even field the first wing of F-22s,” leaving plenty of time to make a decision as to what the final buy should be, and Ryan observed that additional airplanes were tacked onto the F-4, F-15, and F-16 buys, so “historically,” the precedent exists for more F-22s. The problem that is bigger than the ultimate buy is “getting the program going” in the first place, he said.

The Raptor has now been in flight test at Edwards AFB, Calif., for several months; a second flying model was to join the test program by August. Delays in getting the first airplane ready for test-coupled with freakishly high winds and bad flying weather at Edwards, attributed to “El Nino”-has delayed the test program.

Those problems have been of a practical, production-line nature and do not concern the soundness of the design or the technology underlying it, Carlson said.

“There really is nothing more to invent” for the F-22 to perform as expected, he observed. The items that have delayed delivery of the initial test airplanes have had to do with welding, castings, and, literally, keeping certain items glued together. The fixes are all in place and production continues, but the glitches delayed the initial clutch of test flights.

The General Accounting Office cautioned Congress that more flight test data should be obtained before proceeding with major contracting milestones that would commit USAF to funding large-scale F-22 production. It suggested delaying that go-ahead by 10 months to allow more test flying to be done to increase program confidence. It noted that previous aircraft types racked up more flying before getting the production go-ahead than the F-22 will.

Desirable but Expendable

The Air Force agrees that more testing is desirable but argues that the program shouldn’t be further delayed to acquire it. If something gravely wrong with the F-22 is discovered

in testing, terminating the program would cost $600 million. Delaying the program by 10 months to acquire more flight test data, however, would require significant renegotiation of the contract and restructuring of the production process–with a whopping price tag of $2.75 billion.

Pentagon acquisition and technology chief Jacques S. Gansler declined to functionally postpone the program but did build new reviews into it that will verify performance and cost of the F-22 program before large sums are laid out.

Carlson noted that the F-22 was designed-and is being tested-in a way very different from that of earlier fighters.

“We would be criticized if we structured the F-22 flight test program as we did for [earlier] fighters,” Carlson said. “Years ago, you did testing because you had to. … There was no other way to find out what the airplane would do.” Today, computer modeling and simulation have become so effective that large amounts of flight testing that used to be essential may now be considered redundant.

“Flight testing … in 1998 is not the same as it was in 1978,” Carlson noted. “We’re able to validate … parameters through computer models.” Things that previously could be discovered “only by flying the airplane” can now be found-and corrected-before the airplane is even built.

“Today, you flight-test to validate the computer prediction,” Carlson said. If performance matches the computer models at certain key points of the envelope, it’s a safe bet that the points in between match up as well.

The expense of flight testing is such that “we would be criticized if we built a flight test program of the size of the F-15’s,” he added.

Thus far, Lockheed Martin and Air Force test pilots have found that the F-22 simulations have remarkable “fidelity”-that is, they very closely match the actual performance of the aircraft as demonstrated in test flights.

The Air Force has run more than 43,000 hours of wind tunnel tests on the F-22 and its prototype, the YF-22. More than 2,100 hours of aerodynamics and propulsion simulation have been run on a Cray supercomputer, and over 365,000 test flight hours have been accumulated on components. The radar, for example, has been flying on a test aircraft for several years and more recently has flown with a nosecone identical to that of the F-22.


The test points obtained so far “all point to the fact that we’re very confident … that the airplane will fly the way we thought it would,” Carlson said. “The guys that’ve flown it say it handles just exactly like the VISTA” or Variable stability In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft, an F-16 modified with the computer control laws of the F-22.

Moreover, test flight programs have consistently shown that any major problems with a fighter typically show up in the first 200 hours of testing. The Air Force will have at least that much, and possibly as much as 400 hours, before it must make its next large commitment of money for production.

The service has also struck an agreement with Lockheed Martin and the company’s subcontractors to hold to a firm price on the first few batches of F-22s, even as the contractors continue to seek ways to pare weight and cost from the project.

Carlson reported that restructuring the flight test program “bought back” some of the nine months of delay caused by the manufacturing glitches for the first airplanes. This has been applied to the software and avionics development effort as “program reserve,” meaning that there are nearly eight months of time to fix any problems or delays that emerge in the electronics or software of the F-22.

The alternatives to building the F-22 are unappetizing. The F-15 simply could not be modified to take on the tasks planned for the Raptor, and modifying it as much as possible-still to a far lower standard-would cost almost as much as the F-22 program as it now stands.

Some have discussed using the in-development Joint Strike Fighter as a possible F-22 alternative, but Carlson asserted that the JSF, “no matter what you do to it, is not going to give you what we have in the F-22. … My hope is that there will never be a comparable airplane to the F-22. You’d always like to win 11­nothing and have the other guy go home beat-up and sorry he took you on.”

There were no deals struck with the Pentagon in the QDR that the F-22 wouldn’t be cut any further, Ryan reported.

“I don’t think we have any kind of promise from anybody,” Ryan said. “If it continues to perform the way it’s performing right now, if costs come in the way they’re supposed to come in, … there’s no reason to go after it. It’s a good program. It’s one this nation needs.”

He was asked whether the Air Force might reach a point at which the size of the F-22 buy is too low to make the program worthwhile. Ryan said, “I don’t think that number’s there, quite honestly. You must have the best capability to provide you air superiority. All the services agree on that. I mean, the last thing in the world we want to have is our military forces subjected to what we did to the Iraqis.”

How a Stealth Aircraft Avoids Detection

Widely misunderstood as either some sort of spray-on treatment or built-in cloaking device, stealth is a wide variety of technologies and tactics used to prevent detection by the enemy. Since surveillance methods use many parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, different techniques are needed to address each one.

Radar. Radar works by sending out pulses of energy: If those pulses strike an object, such as an airplane, they bounce back, creating an echo which the antenna can detect. A computer notes where the echo is from moment to moment and creates a track on the operator’s display. The shaping of a stealth aircraft reduces radar echo by deflecting some of the radar energy away in a different direction. The pilot will approach enemy radars from different angles, depending on their frequencies, to best exploit this deflective capability. Special materials in the structure and surface of the airplane, as well as its paint, can further absorb radar energy or even change its frequency so that the echo is even more diminished. While the echo is almost never completely eliminated, it can be attenuated to the point where the radar operator can’t tell whether he is seeing an airplane or a small bird or even an insect. Thus the enemy has greatly reduced warning of a stealth airplane’s approach. This effect can be multiplied by flying low to the ground and hiding in the clutter that appears on radar screens, as trees and terrain reflect back “noise.”

Infrared. Heat-seeking missiles and Infrared Search-and-Track devices look for the hot exhaust of an airplane’s engines. Stealth aircraft reduce the heat of their exhaust by mixing it with cold ambient air and dissipating it over a wide, flat area. Special ceramics in the engine exhaust-similar to those used to protect the space shuttle from re-entry temperatures-can further reduce an airplane’s heat signature by capturing heat and converting it into a soft glow. These measures can be enough to prevent an IR missile or IRST device from locking on to a stealth airplane’s tail. Furthermore, the irregular paint job on the F-22 is more than just camouflage: It gives an imaging infrared missile a harder time finding a distinct “picture” of the airplane’s edges, further hampering lock-on.

Visual. Stealth aircraft aren’t physically invisible. However, flying them at night and painting them with dull gray paint makes them hard to see with the naked eye. In addition, stealth airplanes tend to have a low, flat silhouette that makes them even harder to see, especially head-on.

Aural. To remain most stealthy, an airplane must fly below supersonic speed to prevent forming a sonic boom that would announce its presence. The F-22 will likely go supersonic only after turning on radars and revealing itself in other ways, like the explosion of targets behind it.

Electromagnetic. Maintaining radio silence has long been a means of avoiding detection; now it also refers to radars or any other electronic devices that create electromagnetic emissions that would betray the presence of an airplane. When an onboard radar must sometimes be used for navigation or to illuminate a target, the radar on aircraft such as the B-2 or F-22 can rapidly hop from one frequency to another in random fashion, so that an enemy can’t lock on to its radar. The F-22’s radar beam is also sophisticated enough to be very narrow, betraying its position in only one small slice of the sky. Much effort has been put into eliminating the radar sidelobes, or electronic noise at the edges of the radar beam. This makes the F-22’s radar one of the low probability of intercept varieties.