Raptor: Just a plain old fighter once again

Defense News reports USAF To Drop ‘A’ From F/A-22 Raptor:

Three years after the U.S. Air Force added an “A” to highlight the F/A-22 Raptor’s ability to drop bombs, the service is dropping the extra letter from the stealthy jet’s designator.

The plane, which is expected to officially enter service in the coming weeks, will henceforth be called the F-22A — with the trailing letter indicating a first variant, not an extra role.

So it’s losing an ‘A’ but gaining, er, another ‘A’. Anyway.

In September 2002, Gen. John Jumper, then-Air Force chief of staff, added the “A” to emphasize the aircraft’s ground-attack capabilities. The switch came as the airplane was being assailed by critics inside and outside the Pentagon as too expensive for the post-Sept. 11 world.

“This isn’t your father’s F-22,” then-Air Force Secretary Jim Roche said in a 2002 interview.

Since then, several Air Force officials have called the aircraft even more flexible and capable than the F/A designator indicated. Classified capabilities, unknown to the American public and U.S. lawmakers alike, mean that the plane might as well have been called the FB-22 bomber, F/E-22 surveillance plane, F/EA-22 electronic attack aircraft, or even an RC-22 signals-intelligence platform, they said.

I noted a couple of weeks ago that so many additional roles were being shoehorned onto the Raptor that it was becoming the F/A/R/C/E-22. Not because it’s a poor-performing plane (it isn’t) or because these additional capabilities are useless (they aren’t), but because so many non-fighter capabilities were being hyped so loudly on this very expensive project that it was beginning to look more than a little silly.

If a 150-million-plus dollar fifth-generation air superiority fighter cannot justify itself based solely upon its ability to defeat enemy aircraft when all the chips are down, no add-on capability to destroy IEDs along convoy routes is going to help sell anyone on it. And make no mistake. The Raptor is a ‘when all the chips are down’ aircraft. Between the limited numbers the Air Force will be getting and the significant expense of each plane, expect them to attend only the most important parties.

As noted at the time, adding more capability to an already-impressive fighter is great. For instance, IEDs are the biggest problem our troops face right now, and if there’s anything anyone can do to help, let’s get them on it ASAP. But don’t tell us the Raptor can not only fight other planes but it can also drop bombs and expect us to suddenly stop caring about the price tag or questioning the program’s place in today’s military.

Adding the ‘A’ for ‘attack’ was pretty silly to begin with. The simple capability to carry and use ground-attack munitions isn’t enough to qualify, otherwise virtually every combat plane in the inventory would be wearing an ‘A’. It’s all about the role that the plane is going play. And, despite the capability to use GPS-guided JDAMs, does anyone seriously believe that our limited number of very expensive F-22s are going to be playing a significant role in the ground attack and close air support roles? They’ll only do so if F-16s, F-15Es, and the A-10 ‘Warthogs’ are unavailable.

So while this is a welcome move by the Air Force, it probably shouldn’t impact our expectations of the Raptor one way or the other. Before it was an ‘F/A’, it wasn’t going to do a whole lot of ground attack. When it became an ‘F/A’, it still wasn’t. So this change back to good old ‘F’ hasn’t really done much to alter things.

But did you notice how the switch back from ‘F/A’ didn’t happen until the first squadron of Raptors, nearly finished with a rather impressive string of exercises and demonstrations, is just about to become fully active?

And it occurs to me that the presence of an ‘F/A’ Raptor might hurt the case to justify a true fighter-bomber version of the Raptor, the FB-22. Lockheed continues to push for such a beast, but some may wonder if we need a Raptor fighter-bomber when we already have a Raptor fighter-attack plane.

Voila! We don’t have a Raptor fighter attack plane anymore, do we? (Or am I just being cynical?)

cross-posted at Defense Tech


  1. I used to be proud to be in the Air Force. Lately, though, it’s been tough. Our ‘leadership’ has been severely lacking, our Academy cadets are raping their fellow students and getting away with it, and they play silly marketing games to get money that I believe can be better used by the Army and Marines. There, I said it.

  2. The additional capabilities were added because they need to get contractors in 6 more congressional districts.

  3. The additional capabilities are, in my opinion, useful. Not as useful as they would be if they included the carriage of HARMs (or perhaps a shortened version to fit inside the weapons bay). Still, giving the F-22 the capability to defend itself against SAM systems is pretty handy. It basically allows the F-22 to take on a role which would otherwise be a waste of a B-2 mission in suppressing the defense of an installation which non-stealth aircraft can not readily hit. The F-22 can also operate in a much ‘hotter’ environment than a B-2 or F-117. The ability to pull off small strikes in such an environment is a handy one to have. But Murdoc is right, if the ability to carry and drop bombs makes for an attack plane, then what is NOT an attack plane? Pretty much every ‘pure’ fighter ever made has had a couplea bombs strapped to it at some point. Now, if an F-22 could carry 2 or 4 AMRAAMs, 2 or 4 Sidewinders and 2 HARMs or similar, that would make it an excellent escort fighter, especially for protecting bombers.

  4. I will conform to stereotype and submit that it’s all pointless anyway, since the majority of all strike missions will be conducted by uavs (or at least standoff weapons) within ten to fifteen years anyway. The air force will inevitably come to justify its derogatory nickname as more and more pilots will be sitting in chairs directing mostly autonomous uavs rather than sitting in cockpits, vulnerable to enemy attack.

  5. Heh. Buckethead – sure – but what if major hostilities break out tomorrow? At least there’s something to fill the gap until the UAVs are ready to do the heavy lifting, and not just revamped ’60s technology. If the capability exists, might as well take advantage of it? Being a computer guy, I happen to hate the concept of ‘vapourware’. Or, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating 🙂

  6. Oh, I have no problem with fielding the F-22. Hell, buy more. And buy thousands of F-35s (and pick a name for the damn thing, already) and bring back the F-23 as a FB-23. Build the B3. Better guns than butter, I always say. But do it now, because the age of the manned fighter and bomber is coming to an end. Yes, we do need class of the world fighters right now, and we shouldn’t sacrifice current capability for future. But the ucavs are coming, and their road to improvement is naturally going to be a lot faster than the one we saw for manned aircraft. One, because we figured out all the tricky aerodynamics stuff already with the manned aircraft. Two, because processor speed is doubling about every year and a half. Which means more capable robot pilot brains, and faster design times for the craft. Also, quicker testing, because you don’t have to worry about crashes killing people and frightening senators. The armed predator is equivalent to an early WWI biplane fighter. Its a prototype reconnaissance aircraft hastily refitted with weapons. But the first purpose built armed combat craft are in the works. Very soon, we’ll have Spads and Sopwiths and Fokkers. And ten years after that, we’ll have mustangs, flying fortresses, lightnings and super sabres and phantoms and raptors.

  7. Just checking… can the F-22 carry HARMs externally? Yeah, I know, ‘defeats the purpose’, but the original plans were always for it to carry pylons after the early threat had been degraded…

  8. As I understand the article, the additional capabilities aren’t things that were added to the Raptor, they’re intrinsic to the capabilities of the baseline aircraft. The integrated avionics of the F-22 are in a class all their own and, combined with stealth and supercruise, are offering the Air Force a whole new way to fight. If even half of the capabilities claimed for the Raptor are true (and that remains to be seen), it’s a revolutionary combat system offering revolutionary ways to fight.

  9. The F-22 is not revolutionary, at least in electronic capability. The so called supercomputer with wings, can perform at 700 million MIPS with future expansion to bring it up to 2000MIPS. By way of comparison a P4 at 3.2 ghz will give you 9793 MIPS. The one interesting thing about the F-22 is that it drop JDAMS at supersonic speeds. Throw in a tungsten penitrator with a solid rocket booster and I bet you could get the rod to Mach 5 or 6 will littel effort. That would make a great bunker buster.

  10. Quoting James, ‘The F-22 is not revolutionary, at least in electronic capability.’ Compared to any other fighter, I think it is. You can point out individual features that other aircraft may have but none of them are as completely integrated as the F-22. Oh, and going off on a tangent… Why oh why wasn’t the F-23 chosen? No enemy would ever attempt to shoot it down, they’d be too awed by its beauty! I still don’t understand why I’m not paid to make procurement decisions…

  11. Yeff : I’m pretty sure the JDAM carriage ability was added late in the game, but I’m not sure about that. Still, it obviously didn’t require too many changes, perhaps mostly software. The F-22/F-23 decision was covered here previously. We’ve all pretty much agreed that the F-23 was the better aircraft but it was felt that buying it would incur a lot more risks than the F-22, which was more conventional and the contractor was deemed to be more likely to complete the project successfully than the other. I don’t think it was necessary a dumb decision. I wonder if building F-23s now would be easier, since the F-22’s engine development is already complete? If so they might make good bombers/navy planes. My guess would be it would be significantly cheaper, but still expensive ($30-40b). Might as well just finish the F-35 for that much. But it won’t have the same capabilities as the FB-23 might have…