If you’ve missed it, I’ve hosted quite the little raging debate, over the merits and need of the F-22 Raptor. And there’s a lot of confusion — even amongst smart blogger-type people — over just what it is the Raptor is supposed to do.
The F-22 is built around three things: Radar (with implied computing power), supercruise engines, and stealthiness. This much we know for sure. Its weapons (and certain other capabilities) remain secret.
Other things we can figure out through conjecture, and not even much of that. But here’s the street fighter version of what the Raptor can do: You stick your thumbs in the other guy’s eyes before you kick him in the balls. And did I mention the part where your thumbs and legs are about a hundred miles long?
Let me explain…
The F-22’s radar is less powerful than the one atop an AWACS, but its computing power is unmatched in the skies (probably).
Its supercruise engines enable it to fly at supersonic speeds without afterburners or entering steep (and dangerous) dives. There’s nothing secret about supercruise engines.
How stealthy is the F-22? Well, we don’t know. We do know that the much, much larger B-2 has about the same radar cross-section as a smallish bird. And the B-2 is based on technology developed in the late ’70s/early ’80s. So it’s no great leap to assume that the F-22 — more modern, much smaller — is even harder to detect.
Put those three things together (forgetting whatever wonder weapons the Raptor might carry), and you can start putting together a solid doctrine for how put the F-22 to good use.
First: Each plane is very powerful. As infantrymen have gotten enhanced vision and more powerful weapons (and better teammates like main battle tanks and computer-controlled indirect artillery), they’ve spread out. Instead of trenches of men lined shoulder to shoulder, small fire teams of four-to-five men cover much larger swathes of untrenched territory. Expect something similar with the Raptor — just one F-22 can cover a lot of airspace. So forget masses of planes hurtling towards each other at high speed. In fact, I’d say even the “loose deuce” formation would be a thing of the past with the F-22. If I were writing Air Force doctrine, I wouldn’t get two Raptors within 50 klicks of one another.
Second: A conventional third- or fourth-generation fighter (F-15, F-16, Su-27, Su-30, MiG-29, Eurofighter, Rafale, etc.) has only a couple minutes worth of supersonic cruising available. Any more than that, and the afterburner has them on bingo fuel. And an enemy fighter on its way home is almost as good as one you’ve shot down. The F-22 can go well over Mach 1 (how far over, no one is saying) without ever goosing the afterburner.
Third: I’d be surprised if Raptors couldn’t datalink with each other, and with any nearby friendly AWACS. This would only increase their lethality. And a two-way datalink would allow our AWACS an even clearer picture of the battlespace than they currently enjoy — and that’s saying something. That said, each individual F-22 should have at least as much computing power as a ’90s-era AWACS, and an even-more sophisticated (albeit shorter ranged) radar. However — if you have three or four widely-spaced apart Raptors, their radars could cover as much battlespace (or more) as an AWACS. Datalinked together, each individual pilot would have a view of the battlespace God Himself would envy.
Fourth: There’s an old Army tanker dictum which goes: What you can see you can hit and what you can hit you can kill. This drove the development of the M1 Abrams X-ray spec sites and DU shells. It really can see anything, hit anything, and typically kill it with one shot. This is exactly how the F-22 doesn’t work. It’s meant to be invisible, and largely is.
Imagine an effective enemy strike package of, say, twelve planes. Four strike fighters, six air superiority jets, an electronics warfare bird (AKA, a jammer) and an AWACS somewhere way behind the lines. The jets are coming in fast — 400, 500 knots. The AWACS is loitering way up high, safe and far away.
Imagine also there are two (!) Raptors in the neighborhood and, contrary to American doctrine, no friendly AWACS. Hey, sometimes the odds aren’t in your favor.
Raptor-1’s and Raptor-2’s passive radars see the enemy AWACS’s massive, active radar signal like somebody switched on a 200-watt bulb in a dark cave. Even with all that power, the Raptors are on the outside of the AWACS’s detection threshold, because their computers quickly figure out a safe range, and Raptor-1 and Raptor-2 stay there. How? Using constant returns from the ground, the enemy AWACS radar, and everything in between, the F-22s can, at each moment, figure just how far away they need to be to stay invisible.
And the radars on the enemy fighters? Forget about it. Their jammer plane is there mostly out of habit.
The Raptors, already widely dispersed, spread out further — and Raptor-2 hits the gas. His goal — cruising at MAch 1.5 or so — is to sneak in around the back of the enemy AWACS and fire off an AMRAAM missile from 60 klicks behind the AWACS — or well over 100 miles away from the enemy fighters. Meanwhile, Raptor-1 flies lazy circles between the strike package and the strike package’s targets.
The AMRAAM is self-homing. Once fired, it seeks out the enemy using its own radar. So Raptor-2 shoots off two of them, just to be safe.
The AWACS will almost certainly detect the missiles coming in, even if it can’t see who fired it off. So it does two things: It directs two new fighters (Oh, no — now the odds are 14 vs 2!) towards the threat, and shuts off its radar dome.
Well. By turning off its big radar, it’s Mission Accomplished already for Raptor-2. Against the F-22, the enemy fighters were myopic even with an AWACS overhead. Without AWACS switched off, they’re flat-out blind. But it the AWACS’s panic move didn’t help — the AMRAAM isn’t an anti-radiation missile; it homes in on the plane, not the big, fat radar emissions. And against a AMRAAM, a converted passenger plane doesn’t stand a chance. The first missile takes off an engine and most of a wing. The second missile falls short, but it hardly matters.
With the AWACS gone, the AESA radars on the F-22 recompute, and tell their respective pilots that they can bring their jets in even closer to the enemy fighters. But first, Raptor-2 makes a quick getaway from those two new jets. Raptor-1, still turning those lazy circles, conserving fuel, turns back towards the strike package. First target: The enemy jammer plane.
So Raptor-1 looses a missile that way. It’s programable, and knows exactly who to aim for. Since the jammer jet is throwing out a lot of white noise, Raptor-1’s missile datalinks with both Raptors’ radars to triangulate on the right bad guy.
Raptor-1, fearing its missile launch might have given away its position, pushes the throttle down and takes up a new position 100 klicks away from the old one. With another missile coming in, the enemy strike package splits up. They do so at high speed — which seems glacially slow to Raptor-1 and -2.
Raptor-2 still has four longer-range missiles left. The computer very intelligently picks three of the enemy air-superiority fighters, but gets the fourth one wrong. The pilot overrides and launches his remaining AMRAAMs. Since his missile bay doors had to open for a few seconds, he turns quickly to another direction, gains altitude, and begins his own loiter.
The enemy jets detect the incoming missiles, but too late. Their jammer has just blown up, so now they know for sure that they’re naked. Naked, like naked-at-church naked. They split up in every direction, so long as it’s away from the incoming missiles. Which, of course, just herds them back toward Raptor-1 and his almost-full compliment of AMRAAMs.
At this point, the Raptors can take turns darting in and out of radar and missile range, herding the enemy into preselected kill zones. In the air, there’s simply no effective counter.
In other words, there’s no way to write this where it doesn’t end up with 14 enemy jets downed, and two Raptors supercruising their way back to Elmendorf AFB.
Anyway, that’s how I’d do it, knowing what I know (or can figure out) about the F-22. When you have speed, vision, range, and invisibility, this is how you fight — you never get in range of the bad guys, and you never shoot from the same place twice. And you never, ever let them see you sweat. Or let them see you at all.
If the F-22 has missiles better than the AMRAAM, then you can bet two things: The missile itself is stealthy, and perhaps has a longer range. End result: The same, only with even less risk to American pilots. Actually, one thing does change: Stealthy missiles (if we have them) mean the enemy jets don’t even get a chance to think about dispersing before most (if not all) of them burst into flame. But I know nothing about the feasibility or range of stealthy missiles, so I’m erring on the conservative side and giving Raptor-1 and -2 nothing better than mid-’90s era AMRAAMs. In real life, I’d expect the results to be even more science-fiction like than what I’ve just described.
My good friend Will Collier works on the F-22 weapons systems, and of course he’s never said to me anything he shouldn’t. And I’d always been a skeptic regarding the Raptor. But Will kept assuring me that they were worth the money — and I knew how much he hates Washington spending money it doesn’t need to. So I tried to figure out what could possibly make the Raptor so good. And I came up with the best answer I could think of: Networking.
Networking between the planes, between the planes and their missiles, and between the planes and even the other planes’ missiles. The result is coverage you can’t escape, and threats you can’t outsmart. And Will said: “Exactly.” I think he might even have clapped. On the other hand, we were both quite drunk at the time.
Anyway, how you best deploy networked weapons systems, capable of flying very fast and not being seen, is what I’ve tried to describe.
Bear in mind, please, that I’m not pilot. I’ve never served a day as even an airman in the Air Force. This is just what I’ve come up with, based as much on Monty Python’s “How Not to Be Seen” sketch as anything I know for sure. And yet mine is still a very lethal doctrine. Now, imagine what the “Jedi Knights,” who fly these things for real, have figured out how to do.
What the F-22 does is highly specialized work — that’s the primary reason Raptors cost so much. (Well, that and all the R&D which will reduce the flyaway cost of the F-35 and any future air-combat drones we’ll build in the future.) The F-35 is built for a different mission; it’s a strike fighter, not an air superiority fighter. Can it do the Raptor’s job?
Well, the F-35 has got the wrong airframe, the wrong radar, the wrong avionics, the wrong weapons compliment, not as much stealthiness, not as much speed, and the wrong pilot training. Oh, and it’s not in service yet and is two years behind schedule. Then again, American servicemen have a knack for digging trenches with screwdrivers, when the need arises.
So can the F-35 do the F-22’s job?
Maybe. Maybe even “probably.”
But more Americans will die to get that job done.
Another fair question is: Does that job even still exist? Are we spending tens of billions on the World’s Best Buggy Whip?
There’s no definitive answer to that question. If we ever have to fight China (or Russia, or “kick in the door” to Iran, or abort a Future Caliphate, or even knock Hugo Freakin’ Chavez and his Mini Russian Air Force down a notch), then the answer is “oh my yes.” The worst threat is China, and I’d put the odds of having to fight them at one-in-four and shrinking. But: These things can change, and quickly.
Fighter design, testing, procurement, and operationalizing takes decades.
Threats can materialize in months, or weeks. Or hours, if some smartypants catches the Coup Flu in Beijing, and needs to kick some shit in Taiwan to prove his mettle.
Eventually, someday, UAVs will do the Raptor’s job. But that day isn’t here yet. And in between, there will be a period when drones augment our F-22s, maybe long before they replace the Raptor. Or maybe we’ll always want humans in the skies.
With drones, each F-22 would become even more lethal. Each pilot could control an AWACS-like radar drone or two, expanding everyone’s godlike vision even farther out. And each Raptor could also co-pilot a UAV missile gunboat or four, exponentially increasing everyone’s lethality. The possibilities are endless — and unknown.
But for the foreseeable future, the question remains: Can our worst-case air-superiority needs be met by a mere 60 airframes in any given theater, or should we have a thicker margin of error?
Before you answer, remember that it’s the F-35 pilots who will have to pay — in blood — if we’ve measured our needs short. All you’ll have saved is a little money.
FULL DISCLOSURE: My wife works for Lockheed-Martin, the primary contractor for the F-22. However, none of the programs she’s involved in are in any way related to the Raptor, its weapons, or any of its subsystems.