JDW (Jane's) Jan. 18, 2006 RAPTOR RAPTURE JDWs Michael Sirak visited the US Air Force's first F-22A Raptor fighter aircraft squadron ahead of the aircraft's in-service declaration and encountered the machine and its pilots first-hand After two decades of development and billions of dollars in investment, the stealthy, multirole Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor is now available for combat. The Raptor's entrance into service on 15 December 2005 was a significant milestone for the air force, which has coveted the aircraft for years to replace its ageing F-15C air-superiority fighters. The 1970s-era F-I5, along with the smaller F-16, has reigned supreme in air combat worldwide for nearly three decades. However, the emergence of modern Russian-based fighter designs, like Sukhoi Su-27s, Su-30s and the MiG-35, along with sophisticated surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), threatens their pre-eminence in future conflicts, say air force officials. Enter the F-22A, which the officials say outclasses all existing fighter designs in the world, including those in development. This, they say, is due to the Raptor's inherent capacity to evade radar detection, its extreme manoeuvrability, including vectorable engine thrust, and its ability to fly at supersonic speeds for extended periods without the need for gas-guzzling afterburners. It also features integrated avionics that fuse the aircraft's sensor data into intuitive displays so that Raptor pilots have unprecedented awareness of the battlespace around them Tests and evaluations of the F-22A to date have reinforced these claims, they say, noting that the aircraft has exceeded expectations, especially in areas like the power and fidelity of its sensors. "It is quite amazing," Lieutenant Colonel Jim Hecker, commander of the 27th Fighter Squadron (FS) at Langley, said of the Raptor during an interview with JDW at the base days before the in-service declaration. "Imagine a boxer being invisible and he just punches a guy in the face over and over again. That is kind of like it is when we go up and fight F-15Cs or F-16s or any legacy platform." ... Powerful punch The Raptor's radar can see out further than any opposing aircraft, allowing it to take the first shot before the opponent is even aware of its presence, say air force officials. Its full suite of active and passive sensors allows it to see around the entire aircraft for unprecedented situational awareness, they say. The F-22A carries two AIM-9M Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles in side bays and up to six AIM-120C Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs) underneath the fuselage in internal storage to shoot down other aircraft and cruise missiles. It also has an internal cannon with 480 rounds. The aircraft can also carry two 1,000 lb (454 kg) Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) in place of four AMRAAMs to strike ground targets. The Raptors available for combat today can drop JDAMS at subsonic speeds and are also cleared to deploy the bombs at supersonic speeds within a restricted altitude, manoeuvre and speed envelope, according to air force officials. The internal bays are designed to release a missile or bomb rapidly and quickly restore the aircraft's minuscule radar signature. The side bays, for example, can expel a Sidewinder and then close in less than two seconds, the officials say. The aircraft also has two hard points on each wing, each of which can hold around 2,268 kg, for carrying fuel tanks or extra missiles when evading detection is not paramount. Currently only the internal hard points have the wiring to carry fuel tanks and missiles, according to industry officials. The aircraft's ability to maintain supersonic flight without afterburners has surpassed its design specifications, say air force officials. While the aircraft is required to dash supersonically at M1.5 without them, which the air force dubs "supercruising", the F-22A has demonstrated this at speeds up to M1.68, they say. The aircraft can fly faster than M2.0 with afterburners. This speed, combined with its manoeuvrability, limits its exposure to surface-to-air missile (SAM) zones and its vulnerability to other aircraft if seen, they say. "We don't want to be seen," Lieutenant Colonel Wade Tolliver, director of operations in the 27th FS, told JDW. "A lot of times, I mightbe using my low-observability to get around a guy. If he sees me, then it is not his day, because now I have got to go kill him. I can out-manoeuvre him. I can outperform him with these vector thrusts that I use and the aerodynamics of this aircraft. "Speed also gives me an advantage with my weapons," he continued. "Since I am flying higher and faster,my missiles go that much further and that much faster and I can throw my bombs out there quite a bit further at those speeds and altitudes than anybody else can." The Raptor's unrefuelled combat radius is also about 15 per cent larger than its design specification, according to the air force. ... Col Hecker said the 27th FS continues to refine Raptor tactics, enhance its knowledge base for flying and maintaining the aircraft and is participating in training missions of increasing magnitude and scope. In October 2005, six F-22As flew to Hill AFB, Utah, to take part in exercises to assess the unit's ability to strike ground targets, in this case using inert JDAMs. "That deployment went really well," he said. "We dropped 22 JDAMs. Out of 22, we had 22 hits." In November 2005 four Raptors from Langley flew to Nellis AFB, Nevada, to conduct a long-range strike mission together with B-2A stealth bombers and F-117A stealth fighter aircraft in concert with other strike and support platforms. The goal was to penetrate the heavily defended airspace of a simulated near-peer adversary and clear the path for the B-2s and F-117s to attack their targets. F-15Cs flew in the roles of Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30MK1 aircraft and SAMs were simulated. During the nearly seven-hour mission, the unit's four Raptors, working for alternating periods with four F-22As based at Nellis, dominated the skies and enabled the strike waves to safely carry out their runs, said Col Hecker. "We killed 33 F-15Cs and didn't suffer a single loss," he said. "They didn't see us at all."