The United States Air Force is commissioning a fleet of 277 F/A-22 Raptor fighter jets at a cost of $260m each. The first, which was due to be completed on Wednesday this week, is to join a fighter squadron close to Washington, DC.
According to Lockheed-Martin, the plane has been in theoretical development since the 1970s when it became apparent that new military threats were arising that the F-15 would not be able to handle. According to the LM site:
A new generation of fighters is under development in several countries around the world today. The advent of these new fighters, as well as the continuing export of current air defense and adversary advanced fighter technology to the Third World, put the United States' ability to gain and maintain air superiority, much less air dominance, at increasing risk.
The formal design process began in 1985.
Astute readers will note that the military threats the US and its allies faced in 1985 are quite different from the threats we all have to deal with today. This is just one of the strands of controversy running through this project.
Another sticking point is the cost: at $260m each, these are the most expensive fighter planes in the world – putting even the $45m F-117 Nighthawk in the shade. It is also around four times the original estimate, and as costs spiralled, Congress moved to scrap the project in its entirety. However, pressure from military contractors and union groups kept the contract aloft.
The 62-foot Raptor certainly has some impressive sounding stats. Its two engines are Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 turbofan engines with afterburners and two-dimensional thrust-vectoring nozzles. Each engine is in the 35,000-lb-thrust class, which means it’ll cruise along quite happily at Mach 1.5 (1,142 mph), but if you’re in a hurry, it’ll top out at Mach 2.
By contrast, the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter whipped along at a mere 640mph with two General Electric F404 engines with 10,500-lb-thrust each. The B2-Stealth bomber has four, 17,300-lb-thrust engines, but is a long-range heavy bomber, rather than a fighter jet.
The Raptor is also invisible to radar, and has a massive weapons capacity. It has three internal bays on the underside of the craft with room for six medium-range, radar-guided air-to-air missiles and two, short-range, heat-seeking Sidewinders. It also has an internal M61 A2 20mm cannon, big brother to the M61 Gatling gun. External bays can take more weaponry, or additional fuel tanks.
So, lots of speed, lots of firepower and a great big bill. A report on The BBC notes that the first F/A-22 rolling onto tarmac coincides with Lockheed-Martin announcing a 40 per cent rise in profits. The company is now processing an order for the next-generation fighter jet, the F-35 that both the US and the UK have signed up to buy. ®