At Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, 27th Fighter Squadron pilot Captain Phil Colomy opened his presentation on the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor with a video of inert bomb impacts set to a rock soundtrack. Clip after clip showed 1,000-pound Boeing GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munitions slamming into derelict trucks and digging craters in sand.The footage was from the squadron's recent weapons camp at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, where Raptors climbed to higher than 50,000 feet, accelerated to faster than Mach 1 then dropped JDAMs 20 miles or more from targets. According to 1st Fighter Wing commander Brigadier General Burton Field, all 22 drops resulted in direct hits at greater accuracy than any other aircraft has ever achieved with JDAM.From 2002 to 2005, the F-22 was known as the F/A-22, emphasizing its ground-attack capability hauling two internal JDAMs or (in the future) eight 250-pound Small Diameter Bombs. "We were trying to tell a story, trying to say that the F-22 is not just a better [Boeing] F-15C," Field explained.Wing spokeswoman Captain Elizabeth Kreft pointed out that, during the period of the "F/A" designation, James Roche, a former sailor, was Air Force secretary. The dual designation has been standard in Navy tactical air since the early 1980s with the Boeing F/A-18A Hornet.But with the major fights over Raptor funding over and with Roche having stepped down, this year the Air Force switched the Raptor's designation back to the traditional F-22. But lest anyone take this to mean that the Raptor is once again just a fighter, Field pointed out that the Raptor's only truly unique capabilities lie in the ground attack realm. "Shooting down other aircraft is not what the F-22 is best at." (Though it is pretty good at this -- check back for Part Four.)Where the Raptor truly excels is in the high-energy, long-range delivery of smart bombs in a high-threat environment. The weapons camp was a basic demonstration of that capability.Colomy brought up a schematic of Iran's integrated air defense network featuring overlapping radar coverage and the latest Russian-made surface-to-air missiles. The systems' detection and engagement ranges were plotted with circles based on their performance against legacy Air Force aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-16C and F-15E. Next Colomy brought up a slide that showed the effect of the F-22's superior speed and stealth on the performance of the same air defenses. Their ranges were halved, leaving huge gaps in the network."There's no shortage of bomb droppers in the Air Force," Colomy said. "But can they get close enough?"With its front-aspect stealth and its ability to supercruise faster than Mach 1 at high altitude over long ranges (contingent on adequate tanking), the Raptor can sneak up on enemy defenses then release a pair of JDAMs with far greater energy than other aircraft can manage. That means more destructive weapons effects and fewer sorties to roll back air defenses. "We use the F-22 to clear a path for other aircraft," Colomy said.Thus has evolved the Raptor's new niche. In light of the tiny production run of just 183 jets, Raptors will equip only seven squadrons -- effectively a "silver-bullet" force. Rather than replacing F-15s wholesale, the Raptor will complement modernized F-15s and work alongside legacy aircraft to enhance their capabilities. While Raptor-Eagle teams clear the skies, ground-attack Raptors will poke holes in integrated air defenses so F-16s, F-15Es, Lockheed Martin F-117s and strategic bombers can bring their firepower to bear.Some background here.--David Axe
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