There ain't a lot of love for the ol' F-22A Raptor outside of Air Force and Lockheed Martin circles these days. Critics, especially author James Stevenson and F-16 designer Pierra Sprey, both from the Center for Defense Information, have called the Raptor an overweight, gas-guzzling, unaffordable turkey. Their presentation on the F-22 has inspired a number of scathing articles. The bottom line, Sprey told me in June, is that the Air Force has forgotten how to design fighters ... and besides, fighters are irrelevant in today's conflicts. If the Air Force were truly interested in winning wars, Sprey said, "it would buy more A-10s" to support the grunts in Iraq and Afghanistan.But the folks at the 1st Fighter Wing, which will fly 36 F-22s alongside 24 F-15Cs from Langley Air Force Base in southern Virginia, told me (in so many words) that Sprey is full of it."One thing we've done really well in the United States is not predict the next war," 1st FW commander Brigadier General Burton Field told me last week. "[So] the Air Force, a while back, started concentrating on ... capabilities across a spectrum."The F-22 represents the high-end of that spectrum. Yes, it is expensive. No, it is not suited to all fights. But if and when it comes time to take down integrated air defenses to achieve air dominance, especially in a conventional conflict, the F-22 is the best weapon around. "As long as you own the air," Raptor jockey Captain Phil Colomy said, "you have the freedom to do what you want on the ground."Surprisingly, despite the Raptor's strong air-to-air record in recent exercises (108 kills to no losses at Northern Edge), it's the aircraft's air-to-ground prowess that Field and Colomy are most excited about. They said that with strong front-aspect stealth, high ceiling, long range (when properly tanked), and the ability to cruise faster than Mach 1, the F-22 can get to distant battlefields, surprise air defenses and lob Joint Direct Attack Munitions farther than 20 miles to kill them. No other aircraft can do that, Colomy said.As for Sprey's criticism -- based on a cursory glance at technical data -- that the F-22 is a poor performer, former F-15 pilot Colomy pointed to the aircraft's huge control surfaces, powerful engines and advanced flight control system. "We will turn inside anybody."But even if it is a kick-ass performer, the Raptor remains disproportionately expensive. Cuts to the program mean the Air Force will field only 183 F-22s against a requirement for 381. That's just seven operational squadrons, three fewer than the Air Force needs to give each rotational Air Expeditionary Force a Raptor component. Plans are already afoot to improve F-15s to soldier on alongside F-22s, but that's a stop-gap. Bottom line: "We need more Raptor squadrons," Field said.In subsequent posts, I will address some of the particulars of Sprey's criticisms ... and the Raptor fliers' responses.Check out my F-22 pics at Flickr!--David Axe
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