Often considered the most advanced fighter plane ever built, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is a technological marvel. The world’s first operational fifth-generation fighter, the F-22 was designed with a bevy of novel features – stealth technology, supercruise, supermaneuverability, and sensor fusion – all combined to create the preeminent air superiority fighter. Nonetheless, the fighter plane is certainly not perfect, expensive to fly, and not without past problems.
F-22: The Power
Enabling much of the F-22’s performance are two Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 turbofan engines. Each engine has a thrust-vectoring nozzle, which can move twenty degrees either up or down, allowing for the F-22 to achieve “supermaneuverability.” In addition to the nimble, thrust vectoring nozzles, each engine provides conventional power – in the form of 35,000 pounds of thrust, allowing the F-22 to exceed Mach 2.
Perhaps more importantly than the F-22’s ability to achieve high-end speed, is the plane’s ability to do so while conserving fuel. The F-22 is capable of supercruise, that is: supersonic flight without using afterburners. Giving jets an extra boost of power, afterburners take a jet engine’s unspent oxygen, combines it with jet fuel, and squirts the mixture into the engine’s exhaust stream, which ignites the mixture. The result is essentially a blowtorch, which is then angled out the back of the engine’s nozzle, giving the plane an extra boost. Afterburners are very effective for generating speed – yet, they consume gluttonous amounts of fuel.
Supercruise allows a jet, in theory, to intercept fast-moving enemy aircraft while maintaining enough fuel reserves to engage the target once intercepted. The F-22 is capable of engaging targets at speeds of Mach 1.5 (at 50,000 feet), which provides a 50 percent increased employment range for air-to-air missiles, plus double the effective range for JDAMs. Both the F-22’s air-to-air missiles and JDAM bombs are stored in internal weapons bay.
Instead of carrying its weapons payload on external hardpoints, the F-22 has an internal weapons bay. The internal weapons bay is quite valuable. First, by carrying weapons internally, the F-22 reduces its radar signature, making detection harder. Second, the internal payload scheme makes for a more aerodynamic craft; the F-22 avoids the parasitic drag (and resultant performance reduction) that external hardpoints cause.
Like the novel hardware, the F-22’s software is advanced and impressive. Using sensor fusion, data from multiple onboard sensor systems are synthesized to create a more comprehensive tactical picture. The benefit, of course, is increased situational awareness and a streamlined workload for the pilot. Some of the F-22’s key mission systems include: Martin Marietta AN/AAR-56 infrared and ultraviolet Missile Launch Detector (MLD); Sanders/General Electric AN/ALR-94 electronic warfare system; Westinghouse/Texas Instruments AN-APG-77 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar; and a TRW Communication/Navigation/Identification (CNI) Suite.
The information available to the pilot, combined from all of the software systems, grants the F-22 pilot situational awareness surpassed only by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The F-22’s radar system is so capable, the plane is sometimes referred to as a “mini-AWACS.”
Many of the problems are well-documented and well-publicized. Two lesser-known, quirkier problems are indicative of just how much can go wrong when developing an airframe as complex as the F-22. In 2007, when the F-22 was first deployed overseas to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, six of the jets experienced multiple soft-ware related system failures when they crossed the International Date Line. The cutting-edge, fifth-generation fighters had to be escorted back to Hawaii by lumbering tanker aircraft. The software glitch was sorted within a few days, and the F-22’s resumed their journey to Japan.
In another idiosyncratic incident, F-22 pilots were systemically experiencing symptoms consistent with oxygen deprivation, including memory loss, emotional lability, respiratory problems, chronic cough, and loss of consciousness. The ongoing issues caused the plane to be grounded for four months while DoD investigated. Ultimately, investigators found that the BRAG valve, which is used to inflate an F-22 pilot’s vest during high-g maneuvers, was faulty and the OBOGS (onboard oxygen generation system) reduced oxygen levels during high-g maneuvers. Essentially, the F-22 was slowly suffocating its operators. The problem was fixed, although criticisms linger.
At $35,000 per hour of flight time, the F-22 is a resource-sucker. Last month, the US Air Force announced plans to phase out 33 of its oldest F-22s. The announcement perhaps serves as a harbinger of eventual plans to phase out the F-22 over the coming years.
Harrison Kass is a Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.