Sleek, stealthy, fast and lethal. The highly advanced fifth generation Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor air dominance fighter is only operated by the USAF and first entered service on December 15th, 2005. In addition to stealth technology to avoid radar detection, the F-22 features a combination of advanced sensor technology, integrated avionics, situational awareness and weapons to target the enemy before being detected and provide a first-kill opportunity. All for $143 Million USD per aircraft (ouch)!
So advanced and so secretive, no other nation was allowed to buy the F-22, not even trusted allies such as Australia, Israel, Japan and South Korea who all apparently wanted them. With no foreign sales permitted and the high cost per airframe, budget constraints lead to F-22 production ceasing at 187 aircraft in 2009, instead of the planned 243 fighters.
While I have seen numerous and impressive air displays the F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team in both Australia and the United States, normally it is not that easy to check one out in detail on the ground. In 2014 I had an opportunity to get a close up look at a USAF F-22 at the Tampa Bay Airfest 2014 held at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida and later that year at Aviation Nation 2014 held at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada. These were on static display with the weapons bays open and displayed with missiles in place.
The F-22 is equipped with a M61A2 Vulcan 20mm rotary cannon in the right-wing root (480 rounds of ammunition) and typically for air combat will be armed with 6 x AIM-120 AMRAAM advanced radar guided medium range air to air missiles and 2 x AIM-9M/X Sidewinder infra-red short-range air to air missiles that are concealed in weapons bays to maintain a stealthy profile. There are also 4 under wing hard points for non-stealth flying which would typically carry 2 external fuel tanks for long-range flights and up to 4 air to air missiles on the other 2 pylons.
Although the F-22 was designed for air dominance it can also be used in air to ground operations and can substitute some of the air to air missiles with precision guided bombs such as 8 x 110 kg / 250 pound GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) or 2 x 450 kg / 1,000 pound GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM). In a typical air to ground mission the F-22 would also carry 2 x AIM-120 AMRAAM and 2 x AIM-9M/X Sidewinder air to air missiles.
It was interesting to see an F-22 on display with the AIM-9 missiles exposed. The concealed weapons bay more or less pops the missile out in quick time, ready to fire.
Almost 10 years after first entering service, the F-22 made its combat debut in September 2014, not in air to air combat but in this secondary air to ground role striking ISIS targets in Syria. Between mid September 2014 and early February 2015, USAF F-22 fighters conducted 112 sorties (mostly at night), dropping 132 munitions on ISIS targets such as transportation, buildings and oil refineries. The F-22 was an interesting choice given ISIS didn’t have a sophisticated air defence system, and the Syrian government which do, were aware of the strikes but Lt. Gen William Mayville, the Pentagon Joint Staff Operations Director stated: “What we were looking at was the effects we wanted to see on the target areas, and what platforms in the region would be best suited to do that. We had a large menu of targets to strike from and we chose from there”. Although an expensive and not necessarily required asset in Syria (no air opponents), this was to show what the F-22 can do and prove it is a viable stealth weapons platform to silence critics I guess?
The F-22 is capable of Mach 2+ speeds (the actual top speed is still classified) which combined with advanced flight controls, vectored thrust and a high thrust-to-weight ratio, enable it to outmaneuver opponents. I have seen them thrown about in air displays, then stop mid-air and change direction with ease (the USAF announcer always says at air shows you only see a fraction of its true capability)!
To achieve its high level of performance, the F-22 is powered by 2 x Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 turbofan engines with afterburners that feature two-dimensional thrust vectoring nozzles. The static display at Nellis AFB featured one of these engines. It was quite interesting to see one up close and exposed.
The F-22 is something to see be it in the air or on the ground. The USAF provided a great opportunity on this occasion to get a really good look at the mighty Raptor!