F-22 – Super Stealth, Super Fast, Super Costly
By JAMES W. CRAWLEY
LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. - The gold-tinted canopy closed and a wave of apprehension swept over Air Force pilot Wade Tolliver as he started the jet engines for his first flight in an F-22 Raptor.
"I was scared I'd scratch the jet," Tolliver said.
The lieutenant colonel, a veteran of more than 2,000 hours in jets, had reason to worry. A mistake could be very costly. The plane he sat in cost $339 million.
The Raptor is the Air Force's new super jet - super stealthy, supersonic and super expensive.
It is virtually invisible to radar, masked from infrared sensors, faster than a speeding bullet and better than anything else flying these days. Some think it will be better than anything flying for the next two decades, at least.
The Raptor is more expensive than any other jet, commercial or military, but one. The B-2 bomber costs about $2.2 billion each.
So far, the Air Force has 62 Raptors. Current plans call for a total of 183. Cost: about $63.2 billion, counting research and development, aircraft and construction of new facilities.
In December, the Air Force declared the first Raptor unit, the 27th Fighter Squadron, ready for initial operations, meaning it could fly some combat missions. The F-22 has flown air patrols over Washington and other cities. By this fall, the unit should be certified for all missions, including overseas deployments.
The 27th is based at Langley in Hampton, Va., where 20 of the F-22s are based. Most of the planes are at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, Fla., where pilots, including some from the Virginia National Guard, learn to fly Raptors. The rest are undergoing testing in California and Nevada.
To reach the tarmac, the F-22 has taken a long journey. Development began in the late 1980s. The Air Force wanted a replacement to the F-15 fighter, which was designed in the early 1970s from lessons learned in Vietnam. The Pentagon wanted a supersonic stealth plane that could evade Soviet radar and missile defenses and blast every MiG fighter out of the sky.
Today, the Soviet Union is gone, but the Pentagon still wants the F-22 because countries like Iran and North Korea are dangerous and, in coming decades, the United States may face another major power. China is mentioned often.
The F-22 has its critics, especially about its price tag.
"Our concern is the exorbitant costs and how few fighters we get for the money," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight.
Defense analyst John Pike, who heads the independent GlobalSecurity.org, said the F-22 "seems to be an awfully expensive solution to a problem that no longer exists."
The Pentagon argument that it needs the fighter to penetrate advanced air defense systems makes little sense because no current adversaries can challenge U.S. air power, Brian said. And, if the military is building the Raptor for use against an adversarial China, she and others say, the Air Force will need hundreds more.
While criticizing the cost, Pike acknowledged the Raptor is here to stay.
"They'll be flying it for a half century," he said. "It will be the air superiority fighter for a third of the Age of Flight."
Pike added, "You can't predict what you're going to need in the future."
While proponents and opponents debate the Raptor's value, pilots and mechanics who fly and repair the F-22 are true believers.
"It makes you love getting out of bed in the morning and go to work and strap that F-22 on," said Capt. Jonathon Gration of Springfield, Va.
Several Raptor pilots said the aircraft is vastly superior to the F-15 and F-16.
Building the F-22 has pushed aeronautical engineering to new limits.
To make the F-22 virtually invisible to radar, supercomputers designed the airframe with materials, angles, curves and surfaces that reflect or absorb radar signals, yet are strong enough to take a lot of punishment.
Engineers developed a new kind of radar that allows the F-22 to track enemy aircraft and locate ground targets without revealing its own location.
Computers operate the plane, and the cockpit's four flat screen displays show pilots where friendly jets and enemy fighters are located, available weapons and other information. Each pilot can customize the displays to their liking.
"It's a Burger King jet. You can have it your way," said Tolliver.
Because bombs and missiles mounted externally reflect radar, the Raptor carries its air-to-air missiles and satellite-guided bombs inside. It also has a cannon for close-in dog fighting.
Even the engines are super high tech.
The most remarkable feature of the engines is "supercruise" - flying faster than the speed of sound without using gas-guzzling afterburners. No other jet fighter can do that.
The Raptor can fly at Mach 1.7 - 1,122 miles per hour at 40,000 feet - without frequent refueling. Top speed with afterburners blazing: more than 1,300 miles per hour.
"The F-22 does more than any other fighter has ever done," said defense analyst Dan Goure of the conservative-leaning Lexington Institute.
None of that comes cheap.
Research and development alone cost about $33 billion.
Lockheed-Martin is the lead contractor for the aircraft with Boeing handling about one-third of the work. The Raptor is assembled in Marietta, Ga., from sections built there, Texas and Washington State. A plant in Pinellas Park, Fla., assembles the jet's canopy. In all, about 1,000 subcontractors in 42 states supply parts and services for the Raptor.
Rising costs forced the Air Force to scale back its buying plans. It wanted 648 Raptors initially. Now, officials say they want 381. But, the Pentagon's 2007 budget calls for 183 Raptors.
How much an F-22 costs depends on who's giving the figure and which cost index he uses.
The Air Force quotes "flyaway" costs - the price for only the airframe, engines, electronics and maintenance equipment. By that measure, each plane costs $133 million. But that does not include research and development and testing costs, which are also paid by taxpayers.
Government auditors and outside watchdogs prefer program costs, which include R&D, testing and buying the planes, engines, electronics and other equipment. That price runs $339 million to $361 million each.
The Government Accountability Office, Congress' watchdog agency, has criticized the Air Force for high costs and problems in getting the Raptor into production. The Pentagon underestimated difficulties in designing and building a plane that is a quantum leap above current fighters, said Mike Sullivan, a GAO official who monitors aircraft procurement.
"They were trying to get everything in one big bite," Sullivan said.
But, the Lexington Institute's Goure said there's nothing wrong with making a giant jump.
"When you now produce one new fighter per generation and it's going to last for the next 50 years, then there is a tendency and, in fact, a necessity to push the envelope," he said. "That always makes it more difficult than you think and drives up the costs more than you think."
The most succinct explanation for building the jet came from a Raptor pilot.
"I liken the F-22 to an insurance policy," said Tolliver, the 27th squadron's operations director. The Raptor will ensure that America remains the world's dominant air power for decades, he said.
"This plane is so good, it's an unfair fight," said Lt. Col. Jim Hecker, 27th Squadron commander.
Hecker described a recent practice mission in which two Raptors opposed four F-15s protecting a make-believe surface-to-air missile site. The F-22s flew over the opposing fighters without being seen visually or on radar. They dropped their bombs and then flew back to base. On the way home, they fired simulated missiles at the F-15s, downing all four.
"I like it unfair like that," he said.
James W. Crawley reports from Washington for Media General News Service. Email: email@example.com