While the F-35 Lightning II is largely considered to be the best fifth-generation airframe in the skies today, its predecessor should not be underestimated. The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor was the world’s first-ever fighter and continues to topple records and specs of newer and “more advanced” platforms.
Despite the F-22 Raptor’s legendary status within the aviation community - a fighter some say is the best ever - the platform’s production was cut short in 2009.
'Useless': F-22 - In Gates’ own words…
Back in 2008, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pushed for the termination of the F-22 production program.
According to Air Force Magazine, Gates outlines his rationale for nixing the Raptor program in his memoir “Duty”: “The F-22 was useless in the Afghanistan and Iraq counterinsurgencies, was a Cold War relic, and that a Chinese stealth fighter wouldn’t be along until the 2020s, so nothing would be lost by killing it. In actual fact, the F-22 has been essential in the Syria campaign and China fielded its first operational stealth squadron in 2017.
Every Air Combat Command chief since Gates tenure has warned that the F-22 force is far too small for the demands placed on it.” Essentially, the economic demands of the war on terror made the extraordinarily expensive Raptor program an unsustainable cost in the eyes of Gates.
Early on, 750 F-22 airframes were planned and 381 were recommended by the Air Combat Command in order to properly execute the National Security Strategy. Following the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, these numbers were lowered. By the late 1990’s, the number was again dropped by nearly half and was ultimately lowered to a mere 187 airframes in 2009.
The Raptor: Specs and Capabilities
When the F-22 Raptor was initially conceptualized in the 1980’s, the Soviet Union was ramping up its own efforts to develop a near-peer platform to America’s leading jets of the time- the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon. In order to reverse its potential “mission deficiency” against the USSR’s aerial capabilities, American engineers got to work on the world’s first fifth-generation fighter. The YF-22 prototype first flew in the early 1990’s and was selected by the Air Force as its new fighter.
The Raptor platform host’s supermaneuverable flight characteristics, including twin thrust-vectoring F119 turbofan engines and a smaller radar cross-section. Its tiny cross section makes it nearly impossible for enemy aircraft to detect and its thrust vectoring capacity enables the Raptor to outperform other jets in a dog fight. Able to fly at a top speed of 1,500 miles per hour or Mach 2.4 (times the speed of sound), the Raptor is the first airframe to reach such speeds without using an afterburner.
Was terminating the F-22 production line a mistake?
Although the F-22 program was cut in order to make way for the newer F-35 Lightning II fighter, many industry experts don’t want to see the Raptor completely retired from the Air Force’s aerial fleet.
Today, the U.S. isn’t the only country to possess fifth-generation fighters. Both Moscow and Beijing have their own advanced platforms that were developed to challenge America’s air superiority.
Hopefully, the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program will be the edge the U.S. needs to deter adversaries in the skies.
About the Author
Maya Carlin is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.