At Laage Air Base, just south of Germany's chilly Baltic coast, the country's first squadron of very F/A-22-like Eurofighter Typhoon jets is gearing up. This is the former East Germany, and the rows of bunkers that once housed its MiGs and Sukhois sit empty, their doors scabbed with rust, a vivid reminder that the airplanes the Raptor and Typhoon were designed to shoot down vanished years ago. Most of our current adversaries haven't invested in fighters at all. Instead, they've bought surface-to-air missiles.
And therein lies the biggest challenge to face next-gen fighter jets in their quest to secure their future. Late last year, civilians in the office of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld leaked a plan to slash Raptor production to 179 airplanes from 381--already a step down from the 750 the Air Force originally wanted. The problem, aside from the unexpectedly high cost of each aircraft and significant program delays, is that the Raptor, like Europe's Typhoon, was conceived and designed back in the 1980s to defeat the thousands of missile-bristling supersonic fighters that the Soviet Union and its satellites held on hair-triggers. The program's opponents argue that such a threat no longer exists, as the empty bunkers at Laage demonstrate.
USAF chief of staff Gen. John Jumper, leading efforts to save the airplane from more cuts, flew the F/A-22 in January and sings its praises: "The F/A-22, some say, is built to dogfight old Soviet-era airplanes," the combative commander has said. "Well, yeah, it does that with one hand tied behind its back, but it also does a whole lot of other things. No one doubts that the Raptor would be utterly dominant in combat. The operational testing conducted last year included a series of mock combats with F-15s. "We never got close to them," Lt. Col. Craig Fisher of the 64th Agressor Squadron said in a videotaped interview. "It was very much an unfair fight." That, of course, was the idea. Stealth makes the Raptor hard to find, and the F/A-22 sees better than any predecessor. Its smoothly contoured nose contains "active, electronically scanned array" (AESA) radar: The radar beam is steered electronically, rather than by a moving antenna, so it shifts instantaneously from target to target-identifying the type of each aircraft along the way. A data link connects all the Raptors in a flight, so every airplane can see what every other airplane sees. A Raptor pilot can have missiles launched before the opposing pilot has a clue what is happening.
But even in air-to-air combat, technological and tactical changes may have already made the tremendous acceleration and agility of the F/A-22 and the Typhoon less important. The nature of air war has changed, and close-range visual combat might never happen again. The proliferation of new, incredibly agile short-range missiles now makes visual-range combat extremely dangerous, and long-range air-to-air missiles have improved significantly, allowing slower fighters to more easily shoot down opponents. As a result of these factors, fighters in recent conflicts have mostly dropped bombs in support of forces on the ground. This is why the F/A-22´s cousin, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which specializes in ground-target attack, sailed through Rumsfeld´s review. But the F-35 won´t be much of a pilot´s airplane. It doesn´t fly as fast or as high as the F/A-22. Like most stealth airplanes, it has a smaller radar image from the nose and tail than it does from the side, which makes it crucial to steer the airplane so that it presents its least visible aspects to hostile radars. This is done by computer, so for almost all of the time the airplane is over hostile territory, it will be on autopilot. Yet despite the F-35´s supposedly costing half as much as the Raptor, it is a year and a half late and $7.5 billion over budget, raising concerns that it will be just another capable but expensive manned fighter.
Meanwhile, Jumper and other Air Force leaders have pushed the Raptor not only as a fighter but as an invulnerable precision bomber that could knock out missile sites, "kicking the door down" for slower B-2 bombers and F-35s. But although Jumper "shot down" a lot of junior officers in F-15s, nobody knows whether even he can win this fight. The bottom line is that the F/A-22 was designed for air combat, and there are less expensive airplanes that can drop bombs. And soon there will be planes that can do it automatically.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.