When U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter planes took out that big Chinese spy balloon plus two other objects back in February, China was taking notes and spitting with envy.
As China knows, the F-22s are far more than balloon-busters. The F-22 Raptor is the world’s most superior fighter. And to be blunt, China’s air forces might have to face the Raptor if they get aggressive around Taiwan or other allies.
The F-22 does things no other fighter can do. First, it is shaped for stealth, meaning enemy radars can’t track it very well. Materials in the gray paint scheme absorb radar, too. You can see the F-22 carries its air-to-air missiles inside weapons bays, not under the wings, to preserve that stealth. In the F-22’s nose is a giant, sophisticated radar that comes in handy for tracking bad guy airplanes at long distances – or finding intruding “objects” in American airspace. F-22s have a low probability of intercept inflight datalink, meaning their pilots can share screens and communicate without detection.
Maybe the most impressive secret technologies are in the engines. Two powerful, F119 turbofan engines made by Pratt&Whitney of Connecticut produce more thrust than any other military engine and contain a special technology called supercruise. With supercruise, the F-22 can pass Mach 1.5 and sustain supersonic flight without using an afterburner.
You know what afterburner is, right? That’s when military jet engines glow orange with heat as pilots increase speed. In the Top Gun movies you see Navy pilots light afterburner as they launch from the carrier or chase MiG fighters. The F-22 is the only fighter in the world that can hit top speed without afterburner. Remember that, China.
The F-22 is also designed to fly well at higher altitudes, and that’s why it was chosen to take out the Chinese spy balloon flying at 60,000 feet over South Carolina on Feb. 4. Pulling up alongside a balloon – even a big one – is tricky. Like your car zooming down the highway, it’s hard to get a good look at a slower object when you are moving fast. However, the F-22 has superior flight controls that make it highly stable at lower speeds and up in the very thin atmosphere. Designed in part as a dogfighter, the F-22’s engine thrust vectoring literally allows it to stand on its tail and turn with minimal effort. Fast dash speed and sensors made it easy for the Raptors to intercept the “objects” floating at 40,000 feet over Alaska and Canada on Feb 10-11.
However, the F-22’s main job is to take out enemy fighters, air defenses and anything else that needs to be struck with high-speed and precision.
I’m happy to say Russian fighter pilots have already been spooked by F-22s. F-22s flew their first combat missions bombing ISIS targets in Syria in 2014. The Raptors deployed to the Middle East for years, patrolling to keep Syrian and Russian fighters away from U.S. and Coalition aircraft. F-22 pilots found they could sneak up close to Russian and Syrian fighter planes before those pilots ever knew the Raptors were there. Love it!
Naturally, F-22 pilots based in Alaska have long experience intercepting Russian bombers. (Check out the pictures online.) The most recent intercept was Feb. 17.
As for China, the F-22s are spring-loaded to deploy rapidly across the Pacific. CIA Director William Burns says Xi Jinping ordered China’s military to be ready to fight for Taiwan by 2027. Well, if Xi Jinping pops his war planes up to attack Taiwan, the F-22 can also sneak up on Chinese war planes.
Alas, I’ve never flown in an F-22, as there are no two-seat versions. They did let me sit in the cockpit of an F-22 in Hawaii, after I promised not to touch anything. When parked, the F-22 is quite low-slung, a bit like a Harley outside a biker roadhouse. But even sleeker.
Raptor pilots know they are the best. “I think it’s the most impressive aircraft we have in the inventory and probably always will be in terms of air-to-air fighters,” said F-22 instructor pilot Maj. Chelsea, callsign “Contra,” told Hampton Roads Channel 3 WTKR in an interview last year. She is one of four female pilots currently flying the F-22.
Sadly, the Lockheed Martin F-22 production line in Marietta, Georgia was shut down early in 2012 because President Barack Obama didn’t think China or Russia would ever be a threat. The production halt left the Air Force with only 187 F-22s, less than half their requirement.
Still, the F-22s should remind Xi Jinping that his ambitious, over-confident military can’t top American technology and tactics.