The Buzz

I Went to ‘War’ Against America's F-22 and F-35 Stealth Fighters (And Lost)

After we kitted up and “stepped” to the jets and strapped into the aircraft, Tsar quickly ran through the checklists and started up the aircraft. Once the jets were up and running, we taxied to the active runway for a formation takeoff. The three aircraft in our formation—led by Score—climbed to altitude and transited to the range to start the fight. Typically, the T-38As fights at altitudes around 10,000ft to 14,000ft during a normal aggressor mission, but due to bad weather and icing conditions, we quickly climbed to 22,000ft as we entered the range.

Entering into the fight, our three Talon/Fulcrums maneuvered around trying to engage the Blue Force aircraft. While the Talon doesn’t have the avionics or the kinematic performance to truly mimic a real Russian fourth-generation fighter— especially for a within visual range fight—the aircraft offers a reasonable facsimile of fighter performance at beyond visual range distances.

Indeed, that’s the idea behind the T-38 aggressors—the job is to provide the F-22s with thinking targets that can ruthlessly exploit any weakness in tactics or pilot errors at long range using their intimate knowledge of the Raptor and its operations. If the Talons reach visual range—or encounter the Raptors at the “merge”—something has gone terribly wrong. Indeed, even the British pilots flying the Typhoon agreed that the Talon provides a good threat presentation.

As luck would have it, it would be a Royal Air Force Typhoon that ultimately took down Tsar and I in Vodka 3. Within minutes of starting the fight, Vodka 1 and Vodka 2 were taken down before we even knew our flight was under attack. As Tsar started to maneuver our aircraft, trying to evade an enemy we couldn’t see, a Typhoon coordinating with an F-22 quickly and unceremoniously dispatched us. Unfortunately, the weather was terrible and we were ordered to return to base because of the need to maintain high fuel reserves—but normally the T-38s “regenerate” or come back to life several times during a sortie. But the bottom line is: Seeing is believing—the Raptor and Typhoon are a lethal combination.

“Even if you were in an Eagle or J-20... You felt the same thing,” a senior Air Force official with an air superiority background told me after my flight—referring to the feeling of utter helplessness of being attacked by an invisible enemy. “Because of the security cloak, it's just impossible to explain.  If everyone really knew and we asked to ‘choose their weapon’—there would be no doubt.”

Flying back to Langley, the experience was an eye-opener. I have been covering the Raptor and the F-35 since beginning of both programs. It is one thing to intellectually grasp the power of stealth, but seeing it in action makes one a believer—our flight had no idea, no warning from the AWACS or GCI that we were about to be hit until it was all over. It’s nearly impossible to fight an enemy you can’t see.

While the Raptor would be the most formidable fighter in the world due to its raw performance even without stealth, it’s now clear to me that even the F-35 with its mediocre kinematic performance will be an extremely dangerous foe in the air due to its low radar cross-section and sensors. “If the pilots of both could carry a 9mm and open the canopy inflight, they would have 15 more kills per sortie,” the senior Air Force official told me. “It's like fighting Mr. Invisible.”

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

This first appeared in May.