As the Air Force's most advanced aircraft, the F-22 is in such high demand that Raptor pilots and crews are constantly deploying for training and wartime missions.
One of those fighters of the future is the F-22.
It’s no doubt that the Raptor has been put on a pedestal in the Air Force’s trophy case. Even though the service only has 186 in inventory, according to Air Combat Command, it’s likely the world will see more of it in months to come.
"The overarching picture of how we’re modernizing the F-22 is that we’re looking for capabilities out there that other assets in the entire [Defense Department] inventory cannot fill," Maj. Justin Anhalt, an F-22 requirements officer and program element monitor, told Air Force Times on March 8.
"We’re very focused on advancing air-to-air threats — emerging air-to-air threats — that will challenge both the U.S. ability to gain and maintain air superiority, and our coalition partners and how we can help them out," Anhalt said. Anhalt serves under ACC's plans and programs fighter requirements office at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia.
The aircraft was recently equipped with an Air Intercept Missile-9X sidewinder missile. While the weapon is no stranger to aircraft like the F-15C and the Navy’s F/A-18C, "similar to how the F-22 is a generation beyond the fighters that came before it, the 9X is a generation beyond the previous sidewinder missiles used before," Air Force Lt. Col David Skalicky, commander of the 90th Fighter Squadron, recently said. On March 1, the 90th FS, out of Joint-Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, became the first combat-operational F-22 unit to equip the intercept missile.
"It's a huge advance in lethality for the F-22," Skalicky said in a release.
This shouldn’t overshadow new software features regularly developed for the aircraft. Officials said they are working more with transmitting LINK 16, a military tactical data exchange network, onto other U.S. or NATO aircraft, "feeding them our information, and making everyone better out there," Anhalt said.
"To keep in mind, however, that’s a good focus up until the early 2020s, but then after that, our focus for modernization is how we can be a better fighting unit with the F-35," he said.
And as threats, such as Russia and China, advance and develop their aircraft capabilities, keeping the F-22 Raptor fresh — along with the F-35 — is a top priority. Anhalt said now is the time to look at "how do we better look at integrating with the F-35 so we can better accomplish the mission."
An 'information vacuum'
It's an aircraft that can operate at exceptional altitudes, if necessary, and can hit supersonic speeds (beyond Mach 2, some which are classified). And it can fly at supersonic speeds without using its afterburners— a characteristic known as supercruise. More importantly, it is an information-gathering workhorse in the sky.
Much more than just a fighter, "they are flying sensor-shooters," said David Deptula, the dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Power Studies. "We will value them much more for their ability to penetrate and operate in contested airspace, collect information and then rapidly move that information back to the decision makers than perhaps their ability to shoot missiles or drop bombs," the retired Air Force lieutenant general told Air Force Times.
And Deptula has been outspoken about this before.
"This has been manifest by the F-22 and its use [over] Syria today," Deptula said, alluding to its work against the Islamic State group, which Pentagon leaders consistently toutin the theater as using high-tech sensors.
"It’s been valued in Syria, not because it has shot down any enemy airplane, but because it is acting as an information vacuum cleaner and then taking that information and passing it to the rest of the force dramatically increasing its situational awareness," he continued. "They’re acting as quarterbacks because of their information collection."
Deptula said without more F-22s, the U.S.'s national security strategy is lacking. The numbers just scrape half of the Raptor’s original production line, which was intended to deliver 381 aircraft. The last F-22 the Air Force received was in 2012.
"We need to open up the production line," Deptula said. And coincidentally, he’s not alone.
"A lot of us complained about this back when we decided we were going to be downsizing the F-22, and I think all of you would agree now that probably wasn’t a good idea," Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday. "Now we’re down to 187 operational F-22s. All we hear about is what a great job they’re doing…I think we all know we don’t have enough F-22s," he said, discussing the future of Air Force modernization.
With the Raptor in demand for operations in the Middle East, Europe and Pacific, lawmakers pushed Air Force generals on the exact cost of restarting the production line.
The original unit cost cap was $143 million. Including advanced upgrades and research and development, each plane has been estimated at double the amount.
Yet according to the an independent cost analysis, service leaders have estimated it would take billions more to restart F-22 production from contractor Lockheed Martin.
And the F-22 continuously receives upgrades, Anhalt said.
Just weeks after North Korea's highly-contested claim that the country tested a hydrogen bomb, at least eight F-22s arrived at Yokota Air Base, Japan, in January for what defense officials said was a routine exercise for theater security operations. Last year, the aircraft deployed to Europe for the first timeto help ease coalition partners' agony over recent provocations from Russia.
When the F-22 deploys for exercises, it is "rigorously tested" before it reaches U.S. counterparts, or even other Air Force units. But partners need to properly equipped, too.
Trial and error with new technologies takes about a year to three years to perfect, Air Combat Command said. But that could also change with whenever the F-35 will be ready."We hand them, not only the new capability, but we with our operations group, the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis [Air Force Base, Nevada], they develop the tactics that go along with these new capabilities, so once the combat units get this, they have the entire package of how to implement what we’re working on," Anhalt said.
On Jan. 12, an F-35 unit out of Edwards Air Force Base, California, too made headway with its newly-equipped AIM-9X missile, first launching it over the Pacific Sea Test Range, the base said.
Anhalt said that for F-22 and F-35 units near one another, for example, Tyndall Air Force Base, and Eglin Air Force Base, both in Florida, could fly "pretty regularly" with one another. Eglin hosts its main training schoolhouse for the F-35, which has been training pilots for the last four years.
The goal for the Air Force is to declare the F-35's initial operational capability between August and December 2016. Hill Air Force Base, Utah; Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada; and Luke Air Force Base, Arizona; are poised to receive the first F-35s in fiscal 2017.
Stealth technology makes the F-22 a revolutionary leap in aircraft capability for the U.S., which the F-35 also has, Anhalt said.
"If you don’t have [stealth], you’re not going to be in the fight," he said, citing how U.S. adversaries might view the F-22 as opposed to other fighters like the F-15.
"You can take a fourth-gen fighter, you can give them advanced sensors, advanced weapons, they’re already maneuverable and capable, but if you don’t have that stealth piece of it, then it doesn’t get you to where you need to be to do this type of fight."
It’s likely the Air Force will move forward with quick deployments, known as "Rapid Raptor" to quickly move a lot of jets "into an area without a lot of spin-up" and yet make its mark, Anhalt said.
Sending two F-22s to Europe, for example, is much more likely to make headlines than a handful of F-15s.
"It’s a big deal, because you have a tactical asset that also makes a strategic effect," he said.
Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East, Europe and Pacific for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.