Sitting in the Atlanta airport last night, I struck up a conversation with a young Air Force officer, enroute to a couple of weeks of R&R in the Carribean.
As I soon discovered, the officer was an F-15 pilot, assigned to the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley AFB, Virginia. The 1st Wing is currently transitioning from the F-15 to the new, state-of-the-art F/A-22 Raptor, designed to maintain U.S. aerial dominance for the next 30 years.
When I mentioned the Raptor, it seemed to be a sore spot, and I soon discovered why. Turns out that the young Captain is assigned to the Langley squadron which will not covert to the F/A-22. His unit will continue flying the F-15 Eagle, considered the world's best air superiority fighter unti the advent of the F/A-22.
Langley's F-15 drivers often fly practice missions against the F/A-22, and I couldn't resist asking him what it's like to engage the Raptor in a mock dogfight. "It's very frustrating," he replied. "They kill us with an AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) shot before we can even find them with our radar." As a result, F-15 pilots receive very little training in their engagements with the F/A-22. In some cases, the 1st Wing actually assigns other F-15s to fly with the Raptors. Once the F/A-22s have called their kills and jink out of the engagement, the F-15s continue the dogfight, providing more beneficial training to the Eagle pilots.
The captain's description of the unfair fight brought a smile to its face. Against one of the world's best air superiority fighters, flown by highly skilled pilots, the F/A-22 is re-writing the rules of aerial warfare, providing tactical capabilities that no other Air Force can match. Unfortunately, the F/A-22 is very expensive, and the USAF has been forced to reduce its planned purchase to 179 jets. That means fewer Raptors will be available for future conflicts against adversaries operating advanced, fourth-generation fighters, including Russian SU-27/30 variants, the French Rafale, the "Typhoon" Eurofighter, and Sweden's JAS-39 Grippen.
With much of our military strategy predicated on gaining (and maintaining) air dominace, the decision to buy fewer Raptors is disturbing. The F/A-22 may not play a significant role in the campaign against Iraqi insurgents, but it would play a critical role in major regional conflicts of the future, ensuring our ability to control the skies, and carry out a variety of critical missions, including close air support, interdiction and even maritime strike.
The frustration of that F-15 driver underscores the rationale for more F/A-22s. Further reductions in our planned Raptor inventory will undermine national security, and USAF leadership should start pushing for a larger purchase of these badly-needed aircraft.