By Ilya Kramnik
The wrap-up of the F-22 Raptor production in the US may mark the beginning of its military carrier. In fact, many experts believe that the redeployment of these stealthy air dominance fighters to the United Arab Emirates is paving the way for a US attack on Iran. Meanwhile, new-generation aircraft are experiencing technical issues so grievous that some American pilots refuse to fly them.
The US Air Force has received the final, 187th F-22 Raptor jet, which is now to join the 3rd Wing’s 525th Fighter Squadron, stationed at the Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska.
The US Defense Department has long been planning to cease placing new orders for F-22 fighters since economic downfall drenched the US buying power, making 300 million dollars too high a price to fork over one plane. It was nevertheless decided to preserve the Lockheed Martin assembly plant at Marietta, Georgia, to be able to revive the F-22 line if the US Air Force experiences further difficulties with development and production of cutting-edge aircraft.
But its cost appears to be not the sole stumbling block. Many experts are criticizing the F-22 Raptor for its lack of reliability and refer to the fighter as not the best aircraft project the US industry has given birth to. The F-22 is, in fact, often slammed for its low degree of combat readiness, high maintenance cost and insignificant ground-attack capability.
But the Raptor is not as helplessly useless as some are trying to present it. The combat readiness of the F-22 fleet stands at 68 per cent, which exceeds the US Air Force average of 64.5 per cent.
“The F-22 is, on the whole, quite a mature and successful project,” says Ivan Kudishin, editor-in-chief of the Aviation and Rocket Technologies weekly. “As its major flaws are gradually being eliminated its combat potential is scaling up. For example, its ground-attack capability has been increased by equipping the F-22 with small diameter bombs (SDB-II).”
“Still, some defects can’t be logically explained, for instance, its faulty on-board oxygen system, where an oxygen generating device is used instead of a traditional oxygen cylinder. Defects in this system have resulted in at least one crash and several dire border cases. In a sense, the idea of replacing OBOGS with something more orthodox is plainly suggesting itself. Considering a relatively small fleet of F-22s, the revamp wouldn’t cost much either,” the pundit says.
Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, has confessed that a “very small” number of pilots have asked not to fly the fifth-generation fighter jets or to be reassigned. Air Force officials said they were probing into problems with OBOGS.
The only other state-of-the-art alternative to the outgoing F-22 is the brand-new F-35 fighter aircraft, the limited batch production of which has already been launched before the end of its tests. However the F-35 can in the end undermine the process of Air Force re-equipment with modern planes due to its being limited in its combat capacities, extra-heavy buildup (of up to 30 tons), as well as incessant lagging behind the implementation and mass production schedule.
It’s been quite clear that the F-35 will never replace heavy F-15 fighters because of its shorter-than-required flight range and limited equipment capacity due to fewer hardpoints.
Meanwhile, the possibility of US Air Forces engaging in an aerial combat with modern fighters is expected to rise in the upcoming decade. This may prompt the military to revive F-22 batch manufacturing, especially if the US goes back on cutting defense spending.
The decision of the US to dispatch F-22s to the UAE has given rise to numerous speculations as to its goals, one of which is considered to be a possible air strike against Iran. This could well be so. All the more so, it actually makes sense.
Years of arms-sale bans have undermined the Iranian Air Force. Still, Iran has an air fleet of 20 to 25 F-14 fighter jets that the country procured in late 1970s, prior to the Islamic revolution. These planes are outfitted with a powerful radar station and long-range air-to-air missiles, rendering them real jet killers that pose significant threat to same-generation aircraft, such as F-15, F-16 and the like. The F-22, in its turn, is stealthy enough to be able to close up on an F-14 undetected and get it in the cross-hairs of its shorter-range rockets.
Thus, an Iranian campaign can emerge as an opportunity for the F-22 to prove itself as an air superiority fighter. Ironically enough, in a war with Iran it has all the chances to face off against other, older American planes.