Of all the blatant lies the F-22’s ignorant critics have stated about it, probably the most ridiculous one is that it’s inferior to competitor aircraft. This is downright laughable, given that, according to numerous experts from AirPowerAustralia analysts to dozens of USAF generals (many of whom have flown the F-22 themselves) to currently serving F-22 pilots (including the two guys who appeared on 60 Minutes to warn about its oxygen problems), the F-22 is the best fighter in the world.
So who’s right? Is the F-22 superior or inferior to its competitors? Let’s find out ourselves.
But before we do, let’s consider what actually makes a good fighterplane and gives it an edge in combat.
Answer: a lot of things. In order to be survivable and lethal, a fighterplane must consist of many superlative elements which, only if applied together, make a great fighter. There is no silver bullet. Stealthiness alone does not make a great fighter, and neither does agility alone.
A good fighterplane needs the following:
- Superlative aerodynamic and kinematic performance (which means, among other things, a high thrust/weight ratio, a decent wing loading ratio, ability to sustain high Gs, high speed, high maximum altitude, and good climbing capability). This can be enabled only by a properly shaped and built airframe with powerful twin engines. The F-22 has an unrivalled thrust/weight ratio of 1.26:1, a low wing loading ratio of 375 kg/sq meter, the lowest thrust loading ratio on the market (excluding the F-15), and engines that enable it to climb quickly, achieve a 65,000 combat ceiling, and fly at speeds of up to Mach 2.25, i.e. more than twice the speed of sound. Even without afterburners, it can supercruise, i.e. fly at supersonic speeds of up to Mach 1.8 without using its afterburners. Furthermore, its engines have Thrust Vector Control capability, allowing it to turn easily.
- A superlative radar. The F-22 has the excellent APG-77 AESA radar with 1500 modules, and this radar is rated by AirPowerAustralia as superior to those of all competitors, American and foreign.
- A respectable weapon payload. In stealthy mode, the F-22 can carry 8 air-to-air missiles. In the nonstealthy mode, it can carry 12.
- Lethal weapons. The F-22 can carry the AIM-120D AMRAAM, whose maximum range is over 180 kms (better than any other A2A missile except the K-172 and the R-37), and the infrared guided AIM-9X Sidewinder, the newest and most capable variant of the proven Sidewinder missile.
- A low radar signature, and thus, high survivability. The F-22’s RCS is 0.0001 sq m, thus making it undetectable to all modern radar; futhermore, its thermal signature is also low due to its slit, stealthy engine nozzles and its ability to supercruise (which means there’s no need to use afterburners).
- The ability to engage and disengage opponents at will. The F-22 has that ability, with its combination of stealthiness, long-range radar, long-range missiles, and supercruise capability. It gets the first look ad the first shot, and if it runs out of missiles, begins running out of fuel, or is in danger, it can egress out of the fight and come back home safely.
- Experienced, skilled pilots. The F-22 is flown by the best, most skilled, most experienced pilots of the USAF.
- A gun to be able to prevail in close combat if it runs out of missiles. The F-22, like other American fighters, has a 20mm Gatling gun that can spit hundreds of rounds per minute.
In short, it needs to be able to prevail in both BVR and WVR combat. In the first case, missile range (which can be enhanced with higher speed and altitude), accuracy, radar range and tracking capability, and stealthiness are essential. In the second combat regime, aircraft agility and maneuverability and pilot skills/experience are essential. While historically most air combat has occurred, and (excepting Desert Storm) most kills have been scored, in Within Visual Range Combat, a good fighterplane needs to be proficient at both.
The good news is that the F-22 excels at both.
Now let’s look at how the F-22 compares to foreign competitor aircraft in Beyond Visual Range and Within Visual Range combat.
Below is a table comparing the F-22’s cardinal parameters to those of its competitors:
|Dry thrust (kN)||104×2||86.3×2||89.17×2||N/A||74.5×2|
|Thrust w/afterburner (kN)||156×2||142×2||129.4×2||157+x2||180||127.5×2|
|Max speed (Mach)||2.25||2.25||2.35||2+||2||2|
|Combat radius (km)||759||NA||NA||NA||2000||N/A|
|Service ceiling (ft)||65000||59100||62523||65600||65617||56800|
|Rate of climb (m/s)||N/A||280+||300||350||230|
|Wing loading (kg/m2)||375||408||385||330-470||401|
|Number of weapons carried (max)||8 internal, 4 external||12||10||4 internal, 6 external||12|
|Internal fuel capacity (lb)||18000||22711|
|Longest missile range (km)||180|
As you can see, the F-22 leads all comers in almost all criteria. It has a decisively superior thrust/weight ratio, is much faster than any competitor but the J-11, can fly higher than anyone else but the PAKFA, has a lower wingloading ratio than anyone else, and can carry 8 A2A missiles internally, while the PAKFA can conceal only four, and all others can carry weapons only externally.
What do those parameters mean?
In BVR combat, the F-22 would get a “first look, first kill capability”, itself being stealthy yet armed with a very powerful radar and with AIM-120D missiles whose nominal range is over 180 kms and can be increased further by flying at high altitudes and speeds. Whoever gets such capability, wins.
But let’s assume that all or most AIM-120Ds miss and the enemy makes it close to the Raptors, thus initiating close combat. What then?
The F-22 still leads all comers with its superior thrust/weight ratio, lower thrust loading ratio compared to anyone else, lower wing loading ratio than anyone else’s, and thrust vectoring capability (which only the Su-35 currently shares; the PAKFA and the J-20 will likely have it as well, especially if both are fitted with AL-31F or AL-41F engines). A 2008 study by John Stillion and Scott Perdue concluded that only the F-22 and the F-15 are agile enough to compete with enemy fighters (and found both of them superior to competitors), but the F-15 lacks TVC capability, while the F-22 has it.
Furthermore, if any of these opponents exposes his rear end to any F-22 for any reason whatsoever, he will be shot down easily, as his classic superhot engine exhaust nozzles make a perfect target for the F-22’s heatseeking AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles. This wouldn’t work against the F-22, which has slit, stealthy engine exhaust nozzles.
And if the F-22 runs out of missiles and gun rounds, or is in danger for any reason, it can egress out of combat and return home safely. Its opponents cannot, owing due to their classic engine exhaust nozzles and lower speed than the F-22’s.
F-22 critic and defense cuts supporter Pierre Sprey, who co-designed the F-16 fighter and is so wedded to this anachronic aircraft, wants the USAF to fly it instead of the F-22 and claims that it’s better at air superiority than the Raptor. WarIsBoring.com says that
“Sprey, a long-time critic of a military bureaucracy that consistently produces bigger, heavier and more expensive aircraft that can be bought only in limited quantities, now is poking holes in the Air Force’s rationale for wanting more F-22 stealth fighters.”
But Sprey is poking holes in nothing except the F-16’s clothes. The rationale for more F-22s is sound. The F-22 may be bigger and heavier, but it’s irrelevant given that it has a far better thrust/weight ratio than any other contemporary or projected fighter – American, European, Russian, or Chinese (except maybe the J-20, itself being a large, heavy fighter). This is because the F-22’s engines give it thrust that give the F-22 its superior T/W ratio of 1.26:1. By contrast, the Russian PAKFA “Raptorski” T/W ratio is 1.19:1, the Eurofighter Typhoon’s is only 1.15:1, the F-15’s is 1.12:1, and the F-16’s is a pathetic, laughable 1.095:1.
As for being expensive, the F-22 would’ve been far cheaper if the planned 600 Raptors were bought, instead of only 187, which precluded economies of scale. Even so, an F-22 is a far better investment than an obsolete F-15 or F-16.
The F-16 is decisively inferior to, and the F-15 offers, at best, parity against, the Flanker family, a topic which will be discussed in more detail later.
In summation, the F-22 is decisively superior to all competitors in beyond and within visual range combat, while legacy US aircraft are inferior. The DOD should reverse its decision to terminate F-22 production.