As tensions between Washington and Beijing continue to heat up, military experts are laser-focused on the aerial capabilities of both countries. For many years, the U.S. retained air superiority over Beijing and its other adversaries. However, now that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has its own fifth-generation Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter, the U.S. Air Force has lost some of its edge. While China’s “Mighty Dragon” may be the best competitor to America’s airframes in the skies today, the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II are still largely considered to be the most formidable fifth-generation platforms in service.
Yet, the USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown that the service’s Raptor fleet will be downsizedi n the near future. Despite the F-22’s unparalleled capabilities, the platform simply does not make the cut in light of the imminent arrival of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter fleet.
What is the F-22 up against?
Perhaps the greatest obstacle that the Raptor has had to overcome is timing. During the height of the Cold War, the airframe was initially conceptualized to confront the Soviet Union’s aerial advancements. While the existing F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon were cutting-edge at the time, the USSR was working to develop near-peer airframes. So, the USAF got to work in order to reverse its potential “mission deficiency” against the Soviet’s growing capabilities.
The Raptor was designed with twin thrust-vectoring F119 turbofan engines and a smaller radar-cross section to make it difficult for enemy aircraft to detect and dominate in dog fights.
However, by the time the F-22 actually entered service, the Iron Curtain had already fallen, rendering the USSR’s Sukhoi and MiG fighters as non-threats.
The USAF wants to nix its F-22 fleet
Considering the hefty price tag and long production process associated with the Raptors, continuing to churn out these airframes could no longer be justified without the Soviet threat looming. In addition to the curtailment of the Cold War, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was being produced at the same time.
The Lightning II platform features a range of technologically superior capabilities than the Raptor and is also much cheaper to develop, making it the preferred jet.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Raptor did not serve in combat missions in the early days of the War on Terror. In fact, the fighter didn’t see a combat mission until 2014, when the plane struck an ISIS-controlled command and control facility in Syria. Other than that, Raptors have really been used to provide protection to less-advanced American airframes and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). U.S. adversaries have been deterred by the stealthy airframe over the years.
This summer, CENTCOM delivered several F-22s and F-35s to the Middle East to dissuade Russia’s escalating provocations in the skies.
The Raptor made its first air-to-air “kill” earlier this year when F-22s shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina in February as well as an “unidentified object” over Alaska.
While the F-22 is widely respected by military officials and aviation buffs alike, its time may soon come to an end in light of the incoming sixth-generation fighters set to hit the skies by the end of the decade.
F-22 and F-35 Photo Essay
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, 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.