Total Pageviews

Search This Blog

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Uncertain Future of America's Raptors - Part I Introduction

Image 1: Pair of F-22As

The Advanced Tactical Fighter program (ATF), which resulted in the creation of the F-22A Raptor, was originally concerned with designing a new fighter aircraft capable of establishing air-superiority over Europe in the event of hostilities with the Soviet Union. In the subsequent two decades since the conclusion of the ATF program, the United States' national security challenges have radically changed. The US has moved from a European centric defense posture to a Asia-Pacific oriented defense posture, globalization has greatly eroded the technological superiority of US forces relative to potential adversaries in a variety of defense related sectors, and the combination of the Great Recession coupled with spending trillions of dollars on two major counter insurgency campaigns has hindered the Military's ability to prepare for a high intensity conventional conflict against a near-peer adversary. In total, only 195 F-22's were produced out of the USAF's original request for 750 aircraft. Of these 195 aircraft, eight are reserved for test and evaluation purposes leaving 185 in the USAF inventory due to crashes. Of these 185 aircraft, only 143 are combat coded at any one time while the remaining 42 aircraft rotate between attrition reserve, deep maintenance, and training roles (Schanz, 2011). Part one of this article will examine the problems facing America's Raptor force in the coming decades as a result of these three factors. Part two will examine how the US military is adapting to these changing circumstances while part three will examine an number of potential proposals to further increase the relevance of the Raptor in future decades.      

New US Mission Objectives

Image 2: 94th Fighter Squadron F-22 with external fuel tanks

As the War on Terror and the threat posed by rouge nation states continues to evolve but generally subside relative to the intimidate post 9/11 period, the rise of the People's Republic of China (PRC) is dictating a larger portion of the US' global defense posture. However, it is important to note the PRC is not analogous to the Soviet Union on its impact for being the single defining issue for US defense policy. Despite these reservations, the Pivot strategy and the creation of Air-Sea Battle do represent significant measures to address the national security challenges posed by a strong China. The exact objectives of the Pivot, and its overall importance within the context of US global aspirations, are frequently debated in Government but Ronald O'Rourke from the Congressional Research Service provided a coherent list of ideal or existing US objectives before the House Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee. While these objectives are specifically related to China's naval modernization, they have broader implications for the Pivot and the Western-Pacific.     
  • preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon in one part of Eurasia or another;   
  • preserving the U.S.-led international order that has operated since World War II;   
  • fulfilling U.S. treaty obligations;   
  • shaping the Asia-Pacific region; and   
  • having a military strategy for China.
The Raptor provides a unique set of capabilities to the United States in meeting these objectives from both a passive influence perspective to providing critical air-superiority capabilities in wartime conditions. Taiwan still factors into the US' Western-Pacific strategic considerations but a potential conflict between the PRC and Taiwan is no longer the single dominant concern for both US and PRC strategic planners. Conversely, disputed territories between the PRC and US allies like the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea have become more relevant to the US Western Pacific posture. A limited conflict or skirmish over a territorial dispute, such as the Senkaku Islands, has significantly different strategic considerations than a protracted conflict between the PRC and Taiwan for the survival of the Taiwanese state.

Geographical Issues

Image 3: Central battle space vs. Pacific theater. Image Credit: RAND, 2008

The original ATF program requirements specifically tailored the to the unique circumstances of engaging the Soviet Air Force over Europe under the Air-Land Battle concept. Throughout the Cold War, the United States established a network of hardened airbases throughout Western Europe which were typically within 400-500 nautical miles of potential Warsaw Pact and Soviet targets. The proximity between the US-European airbases and potential targets would have allowed for efficient sortie generation rates while keeping the airbase out of imitate danger from the ground (RAND, 2008). The Pacific theater is between three to four times the size of the central European battle space for which the F-22 was designed to operate and the US Military's basing options are heavily constrained by the geography of the Western Pacific. Given the large distances between friendly airbases and potential targets, US tanker aircraft would be indispensable for sustaining US combat operations. RAND analyzed the prospect of deploying the entirety of the USAF's F-22A Primary Mission Aircraft Inventory (PMAI) to Andersen air force base (AFB) Guam in support of Taiwan during a large scale conflict with the PRC on the graph below.    

Image 4: Raptor sortie generation rates from Andersen. Image Credit: RAND, 2008.

With a combat radius of only 410-470 nautical miles and maximum range of 800 miles (depending upon use of supercruise and relying upon internal fuel stores only), the F-22's would require several refueling stops before reaching the target area roughly 1,500 nautical miles from Andersen at Guam (Lockheed Martin, 2012). Under RAND's projections, given the extended distance resulting in extended time devoted to reaching the desired location for a combat air patrol near Taiwan, only six F-22's could continuously operate over Taiwan at any given time for a total of 138 Raptor sorties per day. In contrast, PLAF forces would be able to mount 1,300 sorties within the vicinity of Taiwan. If the United States were to operate closer to the Taiwanese strait, such as Kadena 486 nautical miles from Taiwan, F-22's stored or being refueled on the ground would be at significant risk from PRC conventional ballistic missiles such as the DF-11 and DF-21. Because the US prioritized the European theater for decades during the Cold War, US airbases in the Western-Pacific region remain relatively unhardened against cluster munition warheads (RAND, 2010). Andersen AFB is currently the only US airbase outside of Chinese conventional ballistic missile range. 

Limited Fleet Numbers & Budgetary Austerity 

Image 5: F-22 production line. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

Despite the recent passage of the bipartisan $1.1 trillion dollar Omnibus spending bill, defense funding over the past few years has been largely marked by mandated arbitrary budget cuts and continuing resolutions instead of actual budgets resulting in fiscal uncertainty. Furthermore, the trillions of dollars spent fighting two major counter insurgency campaigns has diverted resources from optimizing the military to fight within heavily contested anti-access environments. The request for 750 aircraft prior to 1991 was steadily reduced over the next decade to just 275 aircraft in 2003 before Raptor production was finally terminated by Congress in 2009. The decision to end F-22 production was lead by the venerable then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who described the F-22 as a "niche, silver-bullet solution for one or two potential scenarios – specifically the defeat of a highly advanced enemy fighter fleet.” In the estimation of Gates, by 2020 Washington would have over 1,100 stealth aircraft compared to Beijing's 100. While the F-35 program has made steady progress inspite of unwavering criticism from its detractors, the estimation that the United States would have 800 F-35's in operational service by 2020 remains undeniably optimistic at best. While the F-35 will fill a crucial role in the USAF, USN, and USMC inventories, it is not a dedicated air superiority platform like the Raptor.

The F-35 was designed as a multipurpose fifth generation strike fighter capable of air-to-ground and air-to-air roles. While the F-35 is clearly superior in the air-to-air role relative to any existing fourth generation plus aircraft, by Lockheed Martin's own admission the F-22 is considerably more capable in the air-to-air role. The F-35's reduced emphasis on air-to-air missions is a result of its design requirements not engineering incompetence as many have argued. The F-22 and F-35 aircraft are intended to serve inherently different roles. However, when the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program was being conceptualized in the 1990s, it was assumed that hundreds of dedicated air-superiority F-22's would support the JSF in a continuation of the USAF's traditional high-low mix procurement strategy exemplified by the current fourth generation F-15 and F-16. In all or nothing terms, devoting the appropriate resources to support the F-35 program was the correct decision. However, if Congress was able to grant the USAF's request for 275 F-22's without detracting resources from F-35 production, it would certainly have been preferable to capping production at 195 units. While the basic infrastructure to restart F-22 production remains intact, it is nearly inconceivable for Raptor production to restart. Instead, the USAF will have to upgrade its legacy F-15C fleet to meet the requirements of the Quadrennial Defense Review(QDR), which calls for the USAF to maintain a minimum of 6 dedicated air-superiority wings of 72 aircraft each (432 aircraft total).     

Globalization & Coping Increased Technological Parity 

Image 6: Chengdu J-20

While the United States is widely recognized as maintaining a considerable technological advantage over its potential adversaries in several defense related technologies (robotics, aerospace, avionics, C4ISR, etc.), the existing US technological advantage encompassing nearly all Millitary systems is likely to be diminished significantly over the next 20 to 30 years. The loss of the current US technological advantage has been attributed to a variety of causes from globalization to reduced emphasis on publicly funded research and development by many authors but there is broad agreement that a state of technological parity between the major world powers will occur over the next few decades (Defense Science Board, 2013). A state of technological parity will have a major impact on US military operations:

"The U.S. has long relied on technically superior equipment and systems to counter adversaries who, in many cases, had greater numbers of people in their military, or at least in the engagement, because recent combat experience has been in forward-developed situations. Key capabilities characterized by speed, stealth, and precision have allowed largely unfettered access to the adversary's homeland where the U.S. has rapidly established air superiority. The resulting freedom of access coupled with ubiquitous observation, communications-enabled networked coordination of forces, and precision weapons, has provided the ability to conduct operations that range from massive fire power to surgical strike unprecedented in the history of warfare. 

In the future, increasingly technically capable and economically strong adversaries are likely to develop counters to some or all of the foundation technologies on which the U.S. has come to rely. The advantages provided by capabilities such as GPS, internet-based network communications, satellite reconnaissance, and stealth aircraft will be diminished, and in many cases, eliminated...In an environment where the Department of Defense no longer has assured technical leadership in all relevant defense technologies, there may be niche areas where adversaries will achieve superior capability to that of the U.S. military. This situation, should it occur, is most likely in areas such as cyber, where the barriers to entry are low and the capability development may not take massive financial resources."  - Defense Science Board, 2013

In summary, the US is likely to retain a technological advantage in a few areas over its adversaries and competitors vs. the current state of technological dominance across an entire spectrum of technical fields. Part II will outline the response of the USAF to adapt its fleet of F-22s to meet new US national security needs in a rapidly developing world.


  1. Final Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor delivered to the USAF today, Dave Majumdar, 2012.
  2. Quadrennial Defense Review Report, Department of Defense, 2012.
  3. Obama Praises Senate Vote on F-22 Funding, Fred W. Baker III, 2009.
  4. IN FOCUS: USAF receives last F-22 Raptor,  Dave Majumdar, 2012.
  5. Lockheed Martin / Boeing F-22 Raptor Air Dominance Fighter, Dan Alex, 2013.
  6. F-22 Raptor, United States Air Force, 2005.
  7. Economic Club of Chicago Speach, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, 2009.
  8. F-22 Raptor Specifications, Global Security, 2011.
  9. Statement of Ronald O'Rourke Specialist in Naval Affairs, Ronald O'Rourke, 2013.
  10. Air Force F-22 Fighter Program, Jeremiah Gertler, 2013.
  11. Moving Time, Marc V. Schanz, 2011.
  12. Technology and Innovation Enablers for Superiority in 2030, Defense Science Board, 2013.  
  13. Air Combat Past, Present and Future, John Stillion & Scott Perdue (RAND), 2008. 
  14. Access Challenges and Implications for Airpower in the Western Pacific(RAND), Eric Stephen Gons, 2010. 


  1. Interesting and well-writen article, looking forward part 2.

    Cheers from France

    1. Thanks, hopefully I aught to have it out within the next 10 days or so.

  2. Another Awsome article Matt, I know you're busy and all but you should really post more, like every week or twice maybe, :D

    I really constantly check.

    the F-22 will always be used as silver bullets since there are so few of them.

    This is why I am so concerned with the air-air prowess of the F-35, because I know it will take the bulk of the A-A mission.

    In a hypothetical conflict with China, the F-22 will only be used once there is a massive air operation by the PLAAF/PLAN,

    but other than that it would be F-15s or F-35s constantly patroling hostile skies.

    The F-15 looks increasingly like a BVR only fighter to me, as its performance is no longer superior compared to more modern aircraft, and also lacks the LO capability to creep closer to enemy targets.

    Viper pilots often say they can do very well against the Eagle in a knife fight, the incorporation of HMCS and 9X may give the Eagle a fighting chance though.

    I'm happy that the 59th Test and Evaluation Squadron commander said that the F-35 combines the best flight charactaristics of the F-16 and F/A-18, which means that it would be comfortable in knife fight against Flankers and Fulcrums,

    but maybe challanged against a Flanker-E/S or PAK-FA in a gunfight.

    So to recap,
    F-15/F-22 combo: F-15s would patrol and engage (BVR as much as possible), while F-22s would be used as silver bullets in a futuristic "Mig ally"

    F-35/F-22 combo: much better, anything but a PAK-FA or Flanker-E/S would be a walk in the park for the Lightning II (maybe even the latter)


    you might want to look at this sentence:
    .” In the estimation of Gates, by 2020 the Washington would have over 1,100 stealth aircraft compared to Beijing's 100"

    I think theres an extra "the" over there :D

    See you on the Viper's net


    1. Thank you, haha I wish I could post more often :D Yeah its really going to be interesting to see how the USAF can get the most leverage out of its roughly two full wings of Raptors. I don't want to get any "spoilers" from the next two articles but I'm confident the USAF can adapt its Raptor force with F-35s and upgraded F-15s to create a powerful air based deterrent against China.

      Yeah the F-35 is inevitably going to be used in a lot of air-to-air missions as a result of a reduced F-22 fleet especially against China (CUDA has a lot of potential). The F-15C is kind of tricky, if the US had the money, I'd advise looking into feasibility studies of integrating some of the features from the Silent Eagle into either the F-15C or F-15E fleet such as canted tails, rcs treatments, etc but I know its not going to happen. It does have exceptional fuel capacity and range, which is especially relevant to the Pacific and its got a decent missile capacity. I know Boeing's new F-15SA's have an extra set of wing mounted pylons on the outer wing area, maybe that's something more cost realistic that gives extra missile storage capacity if it can be adapted to F-15Cs?

    2. Forgot to add, thanks for the heads up on the extra "the". I always proof read but sometimes I miss em :D

  3. Hi Matt, I've been an avid reader of your blog for many months now and find your analyses very informative, well thought out, researched and written. As commenter wrote above, I'd also love it if you wrote more often. I click on your page almost daily.

    Regarding the F-22's, despite their undisputed superiority in the air, they'll only make up a tiny fraction of the overall US airforce. The bulk of the US, (and, in fact, the bulk of many of it's Allies') air force will be made up of F-35's, which, beyond it's 360 degree helmet display and stealth and information interconnectivity, is aerodynamically inferior to most Gen 4.5 aircraft. Once an enemy missile gets a lock on a F-35, isn't it game over?

    With this in mind, in conjunction with Part 2 of F22, I'd love to see your Part 2 of the "American Approach" of the F-35. Part 1 is here: back in Sept 2013.

    Thank you again for your excellent blog.


    1. Thank you, its good to hear people enjoy reading my articles. I'd like to write more articles but as a full time college student, I don't have much time. As you may have guessed, I'm a pretty big nerd so a lot of my time goes into studying :) plus I'm running around looking for work for the summer.

      No the F-35 has many systems to jam the missile even if it gains lock especially if used in conjunction with maneuvers, more are in development.

      Yeah I can write a part to the "American Approach" series, truth be told, I"m actually running out of article topics and ideas. I usually have a grab bag of blog topic ideas but I'm pretty much out by this point. Might have to do post asking for suggestions at some point.

    2. Greetings fellow reader, I'm the one who posted above, just above ur reply.

      I'd just like to counter what you seem to think about the F-35 as being aerodynamically inferior to most 4.5gen fighters.


      This seems to be the most common misconception against the F-35.

      This is certainly not the case according to the reports of F-35 test pilots and even according to operational pilots currently evaluating the F-35.
      According to Lt.Cmdr O'Malley of the 59th Test and Evaluation Squadron.
      "The F-35 combines the best of the F-16 and F/A-18"

      As we know the F-16 specializes in high speed maneuvers and maintaining energy in very tight turns.

      The F/A-18 on the other hand specializes on extreme slow speed maneuvering and high AOA maneuvers.

      The F-35 combines the 2 charactaristic making it comfortable at any kind of knife fight.

      The only way an F-16 would be able to out turn an F-35 would be if you striped it of all its weapons, tanks and sensor pods. (Clean config)

      A-A to configured against the Rafale i tried to calculate their stats.

      calculate the T/W ratio and Wing loading of a Rafale and F-35 with 7,000lbs of fuel and 6 A-A missiles.

      The Rafale will have the advantage of lower wing loading but the F-35 will have a better Thrust to drag ratio due to internal weapons carrige for most of its missiles.

      With that kind of performance the F-35 will be able to outclass nearly all 4.5 gen fighters in high AOA maneuvers, except for the Super Hornet which will have euqally good AOA properties, and Su-35 Flanker which have Superior AOA stats due to thrust vectoring.

      And in high energy turning fights it will be able to out turn the super hornet on most if not all altitudes.

      it will also out turn a Flanker if which is limitted to 7Gs when carying more than 60% fuel, the Flankers would also suffer from external weapons drag and would strugle to keep up with slick F-35s in a knife fight.

    3. P.S. at 7,000lbs of fuel and 6 missiles the T/W ratio of the F-35A and Rafale are identical:

      0.74 on mil power
      1.12 on max afterburner.

      but its never just Thrust-to-weight, its thrust-to-(drag+weight), consider drag and the F-35 wins this fight


  4. Another Great article matt.

    here are some articles you might like, if you have not already read them

    some interesting point's but most we already new.


    1. Thanks stone, I'll be sure to check them out :D

  5. You’ve got a great blog here!! Regarding the $62-$77 billion price tag for a fleet of 180+ F-22As might I suggest you Google ‘Airborne Infrared and Supersonic Stealth’. Something very interesting happens when hostile IRST and other IR detection/targeting sensors are flown over 40,000 ft (~ 12,200 meters). Assuming a flight of F-22As are supercruising into contested airspace at even higher altitude(s) - you’re going to have a huge problem.

  6. I Googled that and got a blog site with a lot of bad assumptions and amateur misunderstandings with nothing to back them up - Matt seems to be far above that level - sorry

  7. An interesting article, Matt.

    There are two aspects which I believe will make predictions about the future difficult and render many more or less recent public predictions and asumptions rather outdated.

    - Especially new radar technologies, which have recently become available will be very likely to drastically change "the game".
    Modern recently developed "passive radar" systems (which are indeed available on the market and can be fitted into/onto mobile trucks) are able to reliably detect any of the current modern stealth airrcraft while at the same time not actively emitting any radar, thus being extremely difficult to localize rendering all or most convenient anti radar weapons and radar jamming technologies obsolete.

    - Another aspect you partially addressed is the limited availabillity of the F-22 due to the reduced numbers of units produced.
    A british report about maximising the Eurofighters full potential ( nicely describes a strategy which results from recent NATO exercises as the Red Flag Exercise. In this strategy F-22 are employed in a role as air support and coordination supporting modern no stealth 4.5th generation multipurpose aircraft as the Eurofighter, the Rafale and of course the American F18 Super-Hornets, F16s and F15s etc and in the future the JSF F-35.
    A team up of F-22s with non stealth aircraft carrying larger and more diverse weapon loads has turned out to be very efficient. Especially mentioned in this report are teams of 2 F-22s with 4 Eurofighter Typhoons, which have proven very efficient and more capable than just the sums of those aircrafts capabilities.

    The conclusions in this report seem to suggest that the dominating role of the F-22 will most likely become that of a fighter escort and support to modern multipurpose fighter jets of the 4.5th generation.

    As my own conclusion, I personally believe that all this modern radar technology rendering the F-22 stealth capabilities partially or even mostly obsolete, will probably make upgrades with improved defense systems and improved WVR combat capabilities even more necessary and important.
    This is likely so, because the risk of being reliably detected and localized massively increases with the increased availability of modern radar technologies, which are specifically designed to also detect stealth aircraft.
    This in turn naturally leads to a much higher risk of getting involved in combat actions or being shot down, in some cases - depending on the enemies capabillities - this may very well even be nearly equal to that of any non stealth aircraft.
    In such cases, which may very well be expected to soon become regular szenarios, the F-22s capabilities to be an air dominance fighter will increasingly rely on its weapons and defense systems and its supercruise capabilities as well as it's top speed and maneuverability.

    Stealth technology may very well turn out to become less and less of a real advantage in conflicts, if not even nearly obsolete, especially when facing enemies equipped with modern radar technologies capable of reliably detecting stealth aircraft at long distances.
    And it is also no secret that many countries are working hard on modern radar devices capable of detecting modern stealth aircraft, or allready posess them.


    1. Hi Julian,

      Interesting argument with respect to passive radar, but is it capable of providing a weapons quality track? I haven't come across as source which indicates it does though I certainly could be wrong. For example, with VHF band systems the potential to detect stealth aircraft exists but the resolution cells are too poor quality to use directly in a SAM unlike the X and S bands. Similarly, emission locator systems like the KRTP-86 Tamara can detect stealth aircraft, but cannot provide weapons quality targeting information. Both technologies are at best early warning systems for the next ten years and there is a significant distinction between detection and direct interception.

      Without direct weapons quality track from passive and VHF systems, you would need to send other assets - such as fighter aircraft - to intercept and physically shoot the stealth aircraft down or wait until you could cue conventional S and X band systems at closer range.

      I generally agree with your sentiment that stealth is no longer a panacea solution to defeating an enemy IADS given a combination of technologies such as VHF, passive systems, IRST, etc. will make stealth less effective. I would also agree there is great potential towards integrating 4th and 5th generation assets, especially with electronic warfare aircraft such as the EA-18G. The US military already has embraced this reality (more so in the Navy than in the Air Force) and will couple stealth with significantly improved electronic warfare capabilities to defeat more advanced IADS in the 2020s and 2030s. It will also be interesting to see if the 6th generation jets will feature any new countermeasures.