Conceived in the ’80s, born in the ’90s, is the F-22 that millennial kid who can’t get a job because of the recession? On the other hand, the F-35 is that Gen Z kid who has never used a hand-crank to roll up a window but tells you how things ought to be done. So, will the millennial or the Gen Z kid come out on top in this F-22 vs F-35 showdown?
The F-22 Raptor
When the idea for an advanced tactical fighter was conceived, Jimmy Carter was still in the White House, East and West Germany were a thing, and al-Qaeda had not been created. Back in 1981, the Air Force was already looking to replace the F-16 and F-15, both children of the ’70s.
In 1985, a request for proposal was issued for an advanced tactical fighter to counter emerging Soviet threats. Stealth and supercruise speed were the emphasized characteristics, and Lockheed and Northrop were the two companies chosen to compete. In 1990, the first YF-22 flew, and Lockheed’s design was chosen in 1991.
The First F-22s and Their Problems
It wasn’t until 1997 that the first actual F-22 was delivered to the Air Force. Flight testing began at Edwards AFB, CA, and the Combined Test Force received, in total, eight more F-22s to wring out. After the wring-out phase, Nellis AFB, NV received the first of what were supposed to be 750 Advanced Tactical Fighters (ATFs). In the end, however, only 187 ATFs were delivered.
The biggest problem faced by the F-22 program was not deficiencies in the design or emerging threats: it was the money. The original price for 750 new F-22s was projected to be around $44 billion in 1985 dollars. When production ended in 2011, the estimated cost for 187 of the jets was around $67 billion. I am not smart enough to figure out that math, but $44 billion for 750 sounds a lot better than a 50 percent increase in cost for a quarter of the jets.
The F-22 has been plagued with problems related to its life support systems. Over the life of the program, in at least 25 incidents, pilots have reported hypoxia-like symptoms. After a fatal 2010 crash was associated with the oxygen system, the aircraft was grounded to determine the cause, and starting in 2012 began being retrofitted with emergency backup oxygen systems. There were myriad problems that caused the issue, but they culminated in a “hard-to-operate” oxygen backup.
The Good Things
The F-22 is fast. And maneuverable. Without externally-mounted munitions, its supercruise speed is around Mach 1.8, and more than Mach 2 when using afterburners. Supercruise is the ability of an aircraft to reach or exceed Mach 1 without the use of afterburners. By reaching a cruise altitude that allows for faster-than-sound travel without afterburners, the F-22 can reach targets faster and with less need for fuel.
With internal weapons bays, the F-22 can maintain aerodynamics and stealth without sacrificing payload. With vectoring engine nozzles (think all-wheel steering in a Formula 1 car), the F-22 is super maneuverable, making it an ideal air-to-air platform, which is why it was originally built. But without solid aerial threats from our adversaries, it fulfills an air-to-ground role.
F-22 Raptor in Combat
In 2014, in its first combat role, five years after the Senate voted to kill off the program, F-22s dropped some of the first bombs on the burgeoning ISIS threat in Syria. The reason why an air-superiority fighter was dropping bombs is that there was nothing in the air to counter it. We’re not at war with Russia or China, so the F-22 has no dogfighting adversaries. Even without dogfighting to do, the F-22 has been involved in the air-to-air interception of Russian bombers and fighters off the Alaskan coast.
The F-35 Lightning II
The F-35 came out of a desire to create a Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) in the ’80s and ’90s and consolidate combat aircraft requirements into one neat package. The Marines wanted a jet to replace the Harrier jump jet, and the Air Force and Navy wanted a multi-role attack/fighter replacement for the F-16, F-14, and A-6. When all the requirements were rolled into one, in 1997 Lockheed and Boeing were chosen to produce concepts.
As a joint strike fighter, the F-35 was developed in cooperation with allied nations. Americans, British, Italians, Australians, and others all had a hand in the F-35. After a review of Lockheed and Boeing’s prototypes, Lockheed was chosen to develop the JSF.
The First F-35s
Because the F-35 was to fill a JSF role, it had to meet requirements from a multitude of users rather than a single one. The F-35A was to be the Air Force variant, optimized for conventional takeoff and landing. The F-35B was the Marines’ short takeoff and vertical landing variant, and the F-35C was meant for the Navy’s carrier operations.
The first F-35A rolled off the line in February of 2006 and was flown in December that same year. The F-35B followed in 2008, and the C followed suit in 2010. Nine F-35s were delivered to the Integrated Test Force at Edwards AFB, where the services worked together to wring out the Lightning II and its variants. Numerous issues were identified in the testing that led to structure and software redesigns, and some of those problems continue to plague the jet.
Both the A and B variants were released for operational training in 2012. The USAF and USMC began training pilots and maintainers soon after, and the F-35 went into service. Early software deficiencies placed flight restrictions on the jets, but subsequent upgrades have alleviated concerns. In particular, the interconnected mission systems on the aircraft are some of the most complex avionics available.
The Lightning II has a “glass cockpit”, meaning sensors and gauges are displayed on computer screens rather than individual analog instruments. The pilot’s helmet integrates with the aircraft’s avionics suite to provide heads-up display data directly to the helmet. Using built-in sensors, the helmet can be used to “see through” the aircraft, giving pilots helmet views that would normally only be available on cockpit screens.
The Lightning II in Combat
In 2018, Marine aviators carried out the first U.S. combat strikes in the F-35B, successfully destroying ground targets in Afghanistan. The USAF followed suit in 2019, using two F-35As to destroy an ISIS tunnel network and a weapons cache. When the F-35C will be used in combat is unknown, but the Navy declared them carrier-ready in early 2021.
The F-22 Raptor Vs the F-35 Lightning II
While both aircraft have futuristic shapes and stealth technology, they were built for two distinct roles. The Raptor is the air-superiority fighter made to out-maneuver and out-perform in a dogfight. The Lightning II is a strike-fighter, meant to strike ground targets hard and fast, and clear the way for advancing forces. The roles they fulfill are complementary, and the F-22 could even act as an escort for the F-35, ensuring enemy fighters stay off its back.
With close to 2,500 F-35A/B/C planned for the U.S., the need for F-22 escorts would go unfulfilled. There are only 187 operational F-22s out there, meaning the F-22 vs F-35 scenario is moot. The Air Force plans to buy 1,763 F-35A, the Marines plan for 353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs, and the Navy has plans for 273 of the F-35C.
In the end, it does not matter which is better, the F-22 or F-35, because they fill different roles. They were designed and built at different times in history, for different needs and future projections. The F-22 program is over; and the F-35 is just beginning.