The aircraft‘s distinguishing feature is a “mirror-like” coating, never seen before on a Raptor. The reflective metallic coating appears to cover most of the outer “skin” of the aircraft leaving very evident panel lines, including some saw tooth ones above and on the sides of the fuselage (typical of stealth aircraft), as well as some unusual curvilinear ones (on the wings in the flaps area).
We don’t know what’s the reason for the new “chrome” or “mirror-like” coating, although it looks quite likely it was applied to carry out some testing activity, possibly related to IRST (Infra Red Search & Track) or other targeting systems.
Last year, The War Zone reported that Scaled Composites Model 401 “Son Of Ares” demonstrators flew a number of test flights over China Lake ranges covered with a reflective metallic coating (similar to the one used on the F-22), speculating the mirrored target could be used in possible low-power laser systems testing.
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The F-22 with the mysterious reflective coating was also recently filmed by Rich Traiano of the popular “The Nellis Spotter” YouTube channel among the aircraft of all types launching and recovering at Nellis AFB during WSINT 21B.
The clip provides a different look at both sides of the mirrored Raptor under different lighting conditions; needless to say, there are a lot of other interesting assets, including Aggressors’ F-16s, RC-135V/W Rivet Joint as well as plenty of F-35As. (BTW, some appears to be in full “stealth mode” — i.e. they don’t carry external AIM-9X launchers nor radar reflectors.)
Anyway, fact that the F-22 with the experimental coating took part in WSINT is, alone, worth of note too.
Weapons School Integration (WSINT) is the culmination of the USAF Weapons School: After 6 months of Weapons Instructor Course, students are put to the test during head-to-head engagements against one another simulating near-peer adversaries such as Russia and China, imbedding themselves in each other’s skirmishes. Instructors rate and evaluate the engagements from the planning phases all the way to execution.
“WSINT is not only the capstone event students must pass to complete the U.S. Air Force Weapons School Weapons Instructor Course, but it is perhaps the most multi-faceted. WSINT generates capable leaders who can not only plan, integrate and dominate in any tactical setting but can also lead any spectrum of teams, who are ready to deliver strategic transformational change.”
“We’ve learned over time that our adversaries model their training after our own tactics as executed in theater. So, if we are training to win, we must learn how to defeat ourselves. We are our greatest competition,” said Col. Jack Arthaud, US Air Force Weapons School commandant in a public release from last year. And, based on The Nellis Spotter‘s video, it looks like the “Chrome F-22” is playing a role in that crucial training this year.
Air forces around the world are making plans to develop sixth-generation fighters.
Those jets will face a challenging environment, demanding technology more advanced than what’s in use now.
Those challenges, and the costs of overcoming them, mean those plans may not work out.
The US Air Force’s 6th-generation stealth fighter being considered to eventually replace the F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters may have to confront a future that is challenging to say the least.
While not comprehensive for sure, consider for a moment the challenges such a plane will face.
Stealth technology may be on the decline. The new airplane may very well have to fire beyond-visual-range missiles to eliminate enemy air defenses. Adversaries may improve sensor technology that can snoop so well that radar-absorbent material may not fool them.
This means 6th-generation fighters must also excel at electronic warfare to jam enemy surface-to-air missile systems. It must be larger with better engines to carry more missiles. It would need artificial intelligence to control drones. And finally, deep pockets in Congress to pay for it all.
Can all of that come together to deliver a fighter jet to meet the needs of the 21st century? Here is a quick rundown of the challenges a 6th-generation fighter will face.
The main idea for the new fighter will be the Penetrating Counter Air concept. That refers to the airplane being able to defeat anti-access area denial efforts by Russia or China.
Accomplishing this feat may require radar-absorbent materials that have not even been invented yet.
Need for longer-range missiles
Next Generation Air Dominance pilots should not fly too close to their targets, or they may get shot down, even with the best stealth characteristics.
So long-range missiles are needed that go beyond the range of the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM). This missile has been improved over the last 25 years, but it likely cannot get any better. The AIM-120D has a maximum range of 99 miles.
The AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile’s maximum range is 124 miles. That’s not exactly a huge improvement. Perhaps long-range hypersonic missiles are the answer.
Bigger airplane with better engines and a loyal wingman?
A 6th-generation fighter would also need to have a larger airframe in order to carry more missiles for a better “first look, first shot” advantage. A larger airframe would require improved engines.
So clearly the laundry list of what a successful 6th-generation fighter might need to be a winner of a great-power war is long. Nonetheless, I do see some pathways for success.
Stealth technology is evolving and the B-2 bomber’s radar-absorbent materials are top-notch. DARPA should take the lead on improving these stealth techniques and by 2030, when the 6th-generation fighter would be ready (at the earliest), is ample time to work on new stealth technologies.
The F-35 already uses the AN/ASQ-239 electronic warfare suite. Expect this to be enhanced over the next nine years. The AIM-260 tactical missile will get an improved range over time.
This year the Air Force revealed concept art for the 6th-generation fighter and the airframe looks bigger. The concept appears to have larger weapons bays. Engines will improve in the coming years. Controlling a wingman drone is also doable.
6th-generation stealth fighter: A $350 billion per-plane pricetag?
If all this evolves according to plan, a 6th-generation fighter is possible by 2030. However, there is a much bigger challenge, all of the costs involved.
The research and development will be a killer to the government’s “checking account.” I would argue that R&D spending would be around $150 million for each aircraft and the unit cost to be $200 million. That’s $350 million an aircraft which is higher than the overly expensive F-22.
At these prices, the Air Force would have to “scare” Congress into awarding these kinds of appropriations by constantly reminding lawmakers that China and Russia will develop their own 6th-generation fighters in the next 10 years, and the United States does not want to finish in last place.
The Aviationist interviewed Chinese military aviation expert Andreas Rupprecht about the progress of PLAN naval aviation.
Rupprecht explains what recent stealth-fighter revelations and work on China’s newest carrier say about Beijing’s military’s ambitions and capabilities.
Last week we reported about the the existence of two new stealth fighters in China. The first one is a two-seater variant of the J-20 (J-20B or J-20S) that carried out a taxi test in yellow primer at Chengdu Aerospace Corporation plant on October 27, 2021.
Then, two days later, images started circulating online of a “navalized” stealth fighter (possibly designated J-35), a carrier capable variant of the land based FC-31, in green primer, during what might have been the type’s first flight.
Therefore, in a matter of a few days, China has shown the world that along with being the first ever to operate a two-seater stealth fighter, it will also be the first nation outside of the US to develop a fully domestic carrier-capable stealth fighter (with some pretty significant things in common with the F-35C …).
In order to learn more about the progress of the most interesting Chinese programs and assess the status of the emerging PLAN Naval Aviation we asked expert analyst Andreas Rupprecht who edits the Modern Chinese Warplanes page on Facebook, has published a series of authoritative reference guides about Chinese military aircraft (and many others), and, above all, is considered an authority when it deals with Chinese military aviation.
Here are his responses to our questions.
Q. Hi Andreas, first of all thank you for your time. Then, I would ask you what we know about this aircraft, what does the existence of four stealth jets in China (J-20A, B, FC-31 and J-35) mean in terms of progress in this field?
First, we know it is under development since several years and has its roots in the two SAC stealth technology demonstrators FC-31 no. 01 and 02 (aka 31001 & 31003). As such I expect a shorter overall time of flight testing even if the most interesting part of that story will be the cat-test and carrier qualifications up to operational readiness.
Consequently, I think it is safe to assume that stealth technology is no longer a stranger in China – just look in parallel to the J-20B twin-seater and the just recently unveiled “strange thing” at CAC, which eventually could be a configuration related to the 6th-generation fighter – the only question is how stealthy are these new fighters, how capable and integrated is their sensor system and to what extent they are indeed capable of network-centric warfare?
Also unknown is how mature is their sensor fusion and to what extent the term joint is really joint within the PLA? And finally, since the J-35 – or whatever its designation may be – is still relaying on interim engines, there remains the engine issue. And concerning stealth and China, the true mystery still remains the H-20 bomber.
Q. What will be the impact of the new J-35 on the Chinese naval aviation ambitions?
I think here it is safe to say, a new chapter begins. The cat-capable J-35 together with the J-15T and KJ-600 AEW and the Type 003 carrier will finally provide the PLAN with true carrier-borne naval aviation. However, I don’t think that the PLAN has the same global strategic ambitions, at least for some time to come.
One important aspect however besides stealth is, the J-35 is a bit smaller and lighter than the J-15, so even if it may have mot the same range and weapons load capabilities, it offers a smaller footprint on the carrier, enables as such more aircraft to be carried and in mind of the catapult launch capability the PLAN can eventually even achieve a higher mission rate (put more aircraft in the air in a comparable time).
Q. What kind of weapons do you think the J-35 will carry?
Concerning its air-to air loadout we can surely similar systems like the J-20: this is for sure the PL-10 short range IR-guided AAM and the PL-15 long range active AESA-guided AAM.
As for the naval strike role there are several options all – at least interim-wise – around the well known YJ-83K AShM and its modernized forms, the KD-88 AGM and eventually smaller missiles like the YJ-9.
However I expect in the longer term a new stealthy AShM and also some sort of small-diameter bombs like the FT-7/-9/-10 series.
Q. While the future of the J-35 is pretty clear, what’s next for the land-based FC-31?
That’s in fact a good question … By the way, we still don’t know its exact designation. In fact we only know some rumours but actually I have more the feeling, J-35 is more a number used to mock the US-fan-boys since it would mimic their own F-35 or it is based as on a combination of J-15 (naval fighter) meets J-20 (stealth capabilities) and so 15+20 = 35!
In reality a designation within the J-2Xs range – maybe indeed J-21 for the carrier version and J-22 – for an eventual PLAAF version, if there will ever be one is more likely. And only the 6th-generation fighter will have a J-30-number to denote the next generation.
But to your question: I think there are still too many venerable 3rd-generation (J-8D/F) and early 4th generation fighters (J-11A, Su-30MKK, J-10A) that need a replacement and given the reports, that the PLAAF was more than satisfied by the overwhelming success of the J-20 against these earlier generation types during exercises at Dingxin, it can be expected, that a smaller, less expensive and eventually more multi-role focused type makes a lot of sense.
If that however will be a FC-31/J-35 derivate, I don’t know – even if I expect this to happen – and if then a dedicated export variant based on the FC-31’s original intent will be on offer, is yet another question. Maybe the chances are in fact slimmer/smaller now since it is now de fact a PLA project.
Q. Can you provide an update on the Type-003 progress? What will be the main features of the new carrier? And, are there plans for a fourth carrier for PLAN?
Yes for sure, in short: It provides the PLAN for the first time with a true blue-water navy capability. The Liaoning and Shandong both had their limitations alone due to their design based on a former Soviet doctrine and the lack of a catapult.
This was not an issue even if especially in the West some still try to compare the 001 & 002 vs the US CVNs, in fact a lame comparison, since both types have vastly different roles: the USN super carriers are a strategic tool, whereas the Liaoning and Shandong were to gain experience, to train crews, pilots and to test the operational procedures.
This finally can be corrected now so that a USN-like air wing combining air defensive, offensive strike by fighter and AEW-assets to operate and act together can be fulfilled. So in summary – and again even if I don’t think the PLAN has the same global military ambitions like the USN – the new Type 003 carrier combined with low-observable fighters and a modern AEW asset will provide the PLAN with a significantly improved capability to match its power-projection and area-denial ambitions.
For this I see at first the northern and southern Pacific as the most important areas of operations, but surely the PLAN will expand this well into the Indian Ocean to safeguard their own interests up to the Gulf region and African east coast. As such, there are interesting times ahead.
Q. What about the J-15D and T model? What do we know about them? Are they making any progress?
Both will play still a major role for several years to come. When the 003 carrier enters service – I don’t expect this to happen before 2025, so maybe in 2026 – the J-35’s development will surely not be concluded.
Service entry of the vessel therefore fits carrier qualification tests and later OPEVAL for the J-35, but I don’t expect the J-35 to enter service off the 003 anytime before 2027-2028, or at least 6-7 years from now. Until then the carrier needs an air asset, crews and especially pilots must be qualified for carrier operations.
This is the role the J-15T – I expect a service designation J-15B in fact – and its EW-variant J-15D will fulfill in exactly the same way, the USN still uses F/A-E/F multirole fighters along EA-18G Growlers.
Q. Anything else worth adding about PLAN Naval Aviation that I’ve not already asked?
In fact I would add the complement of UAVs and UCAVs.
We know there are already several flying, in test, or at least under consideration for carrier use, and as such it is interesting to follow. What’s next? What type will be deployed first? Will it be a true offensive UCAV like the GJ-11 or more a multirole, surveillance suited type like the Wind Cloud/Wind Shadow (WL-10), which was indeed tested already at the catapult test-site and NAS Huangdicun.
And this even further will lead to the question on the Type 075 LHD’s aerial assets. When will the PLAN Marines get their own helicopter units in numbers, when will they introduce the Z-20? Will they get Z-19 and Z-10 combat helicopters or even a new type?
And finally what’s about the rumoured Type 076 LAH, which is said to be under development with similar capabilities like the US LHD/LAHs carrying F-35B STOVL fighters, but without a dedicated VSTOL fighter.
We have already written a series of reports about the “surprise” appearance of two F-117 Nighthawk aircraft that flew as KNIGHT01 from Tonopah Test Range Airport, Nevada, to Fresno Yosemite International Airport on Sept. 13, 2021.
The iconic stealth jets conducted dissimilar air combat training with the local-based California Air National Guard F-15C/D Eagles of the 144th Fighter Wing for a week, before heading back home.
Before the first official statements started circulating online on September 16, several shots and videos, taken by aviation photographers and spotters showed the at work over central California.
But, to our knowledge, no clip published until today provide a better view of the officially retired but still flying “Wobblin Goblin” than the two you can find in this post.
While most of the previous footage exposed several interesting details, from the Nighthawk emblem identical to the one of the 4450th Tactical Group, to the presence of the radar reflector (or lack thereof), to the TR tail markings, these are 4K videos that allow us to get a better view of some more things.
Among these, the GBU-27 bomb markings painted beneath the cockpit and the “CAP” with name blacked out on the canopy rail of one of the two aircraft.
Anyway, the US Air Force says 48 F-117s remain in its inventory as of January 2021. Considered they are disposing of approximately four aircraft each year and provided they plan to dispose/retire them all for real this time, we can expect to have some Nighthawks flying for at least a decade or more!
As for their role, they are providing adversary/aggressor “services” to other frontline units. One last thought: besides the F-117s are there other types of the past that were retired and that might still be useful as aggressors or sparring partners in exercises and training activities?
The Marines are in the game as well. The “Black Knights” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, the Corps’ first F-35C squadron, achieved full operational capability in July and are now preparing for their first carrier deployment.
This squadron is working long hours training as part of Carrier Air Wing 9 aboard USS Abraham Lincoln and at Naval Air Station Fallon, home of TOPGUN, the Navy’s elite air combat school, to get ready for the deployment expected to start early next year.
The F-35, the most expensive weapon program in US military history, has had its share of setbacks in development. But pilots are still excited about what the aircraft can do, one of the “Black Knights” told Insider.
‘This is where I want to be’
Maj. Mark Dion, an operations officer and VMFA 314 pilot, transitioned to the F-35 from the F/A-18 Super Hornet, and he told Insider recently that the fifth-generation fighter is definitely what he wants to be flying. He said that “the F-35C is far and away more capable than the F/A-18” Hornet.
“This jet gives you so much more situational awareness,” he explained. “The fusion of all these sensors the jet has just gives the pilots so much more information to make decisions, make better decisions, make them quicker, and just be more lethal.”
“If we are doing an intercept out there, the F-35 is what you want to be in,” he said.
“It gives me that ability to kind of remain undetected or at least, the ability to remain where the enemy cannot necessarily employ their weapons against me, which we didn’t really have back in the F/A-18s, those fourth-gen aircraft,” Dion said. “That’s a massive advantage of this jet.”
He added that “if we find ourselves going to a merge with an enemy fighter, it does well in that close combat ACM [air combat maneuvering]. It does very well. I would rather be in the F-35. I have flown both, and this is where I want to be.”
“That was amazing,” he told Insider, saying that it is something he’ll always remember.
“That was huge, just being kind of the first ones out there, leading the way with the Marine Corps and really the [Department of Defense] in general,” said Dion, who is now out front on the Corps’ efforts to field an F-35C squadron.
Asked if he preferred the Hornet, the F-35B, or the F-35C, Dion said that his favorite aircraft was the C.
The major said the F-35C “brings a lot more capability” than the B. It has more fuel, allowing for more time on station, and the ability to carry different weapons.
“The jet brings a lot of capability to the Marine Corps and to the Navy,” he said, “and to have an F-35 squadron on a carrier integrated with F/A-18s and the tactics we have with those F/A-18s, it just makes the carrier much more lethal.”
For example, data links allow the carrier air wing to fight as a single force. In combat, the F-35 can get a better read on the battlefield and then relay targeting information to the F/A-18s, which have a more robust missile loadout than their fifth-gen counterparts. Each aircraft enhances the combat power of the other.
Dion described the F-35’s ability to enhance the carrier air wing, project power, evade higher-end threats, and mitigate near-peer assets as “a game changer.”
“The Marines of VMFA 314 have worked their tails off for the past two years to build a squadron of the best DoD air asset that we have, to build the squadron up with that jet, to be ready to go to combat if necessary within a very short period of time,” Dion said.
The major said it’s been “a lot of hard work and sacrifice,” but “the hard work that they put into the last two years has really allowed us to be here where we are at right now and continue to be successful and to eventually, early next year, deploy and be ready to defend the nation.”
“It’s been amazing,” he said. “It’s pretty awesome to be a part of that and see that.”
The magazine, Ordnance Industry Science Technology, said in a report that the J-20, also known as Mighty Dragon, had enhanced the Chinese air force’s offensive and defensive abilities, and could serve as a “grinding stone” to test group troops’ anti-air abilities.
The article said previous Chinese aircraft could not lead the Chinese air force in a fighting scenario because of their limited range and versatility – a situation it said began to shift in the mid-1990s.
“In a real combat, the J-20 can take advantage of its stealthy capabilities and breach the rival’s defence line, paving the way for other aircraft to perform other operations,” the article said. “For ground troops, the J-20 can test the combat readiness of radar troops, ground-to-air missile troops, anti-aircraft artillery troops and so on.”
The report said the aircraft had entered mass production and output would increase year by year, without giving numbers.
China in August deployed a large sortie of planes, including J-20 stealth fighters and H-6K bombers, to join a large-scale strategic military exercise with Russia. Y-20 large transport planes also took part, according to media reports.
“Because of an increase in production and the experience of the Sino-Russian drill, the J-20 is likely to join more exercises in the future,” the article said.
The J-20 made its debut in 2011, making China the second country, after the US, to develop an advanced fifth-generation fighter with stealth and supersonic cruise capabilities, as well as super manoeuvrability and super avionics.
The jet was finalised and commissioned in 2017, and has since evolved into the modified version J-20B, with thrust vector controls.
Its maker, the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China, revealed this month that a twin-seat version was under development. Debates continue over whether it should be modified for loading on aircraft carriers.
But analysts doubt whether the J-20 alone can enable China’s air force to compete with other countries, especially the United States.
Ridzwan Rahmat, principal defence analyst at Janes, said a major weakness of the J-20 remained unresolved: its engine.
“A significant number of airframes in service still rely on Russia-supplied engines,” Rahmat said. “This engine can produce only about 125 kilonewtons of thrust, which pales in comparison with fifth-generation fighters operated by China’s rivals, such as the F-22 and the F-35.”
“The thrust produced is an important parameter because it determines the types of manoeuvres that can be performed by the aircraft, and the number and types of weapons that it can carry. When caught in a dogfight, the aircraft with better thrust will be in a better position to come out on top.”
Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said China needed more types of aircraft, especially transport planes and bombers, to support its long-term goals.
“China cannot rely only on J-20s to rule the sky, which can only be achieved if Beijing has enough transport aircraft and bombers,” he said. “Without these vital aircraft, China won’t have long-distance attacking and logistics capabilities.”
The world’s first operational stealth aircraft, the F-117 Nighthawk, made a surprise appearance in Fresno, California this week, despite being officially retired since 2008.
The Nighthawks, which were spotted alongside F-15 Eagles from the 144th Fighter Wing, made the trip to square off against the air-superiority jets in what are expected to be training missions meant to prepare the Air National Guard’s F-15s and their pilots for the threat posed by stealthy foreign fighters like China’s J-20 and Russia’s Su-57.
For years now, the long-retired F-117 Nighthawk has been spotted in the skies over the southwest United States, serving as largely un-acknowledged aggressor platforms in training flights against America’s fighters.
Despite the somewhat frequent reports of these aircraft, often spotted flying in what look like mock dogfights against other fighters, the Air Force has largely opted not to formally acknowledge their roles, or even their presence, in these flights.
This week’s surprise F-117 arrival in Fresno, California then marks what may be the first time Air Force officials have gone on record regarding the use of these unusual aircraft who are likely operated by contractors, rather than active-duty Air Force pilots.
The 144th Fighter Wing of California’s Air National Guard, which once operated F-16 Fighting Falcons, transitioned to flying only F-15Cs and F-15Ds in 2013. America’s F-15s are air-superiority fighters, meaning that although they’re capable of air-to-ground operations, they specialize in air-to-air combat.
As such, it seems likely that the F-117s spotted in Fresno will be squaring off with the Eagles in the sky, rather than training side-by-side as air support for a strike operation.
However, it’s important to note that despite air-to-air training being the most logical explanation for the F-117 Nighthawks’ arrival in Fresno, the Air National Guard has not confirmed that assertion.
Sandboxx News received permission from Instagram user corryismigratoryman to post this picture he snapped of one of the F-117 Nighthawks flying alongside two local F-15s.
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What is an aggressor aircraft?
Aggressor (sometimes called adversary) aircraft serve as the opposing force in air combat training operations and military war games. In effect, they play the bad guys when America’s fighter pilots and air-defense service personnel are training for a near-peer conflict with a nation like China or Russia.
Aggressor aircraft can sometimes be the very same platforms operated by opposing forces, like America’s now-famed Red Eagles aggressor squadron that once operated Soviet MiGs of varying types from 1977 to 1988.
Of course, that’s not always the case, and often aggressor pilots fly in American or allied jets while mirroring the tactics and sometimes the flight characteristics of opponent forces. Often, these aircraft will even be painted to match the paint schemes found on enemy aircraft, to make the experience that much more realistic for the pilots in training.
You may not realize it, but you’re probably already quite familiar with that approach thanks to the 1988 movie, “Top Gun.” The seemingly terrifying MiG-28 Maverick and Goose found themselves flying against never actually existed at all. The Soviet Union never developed a MiG-28-the aircraft was played by the American-made Northrop F-5 Tiger II.
Why use the F-117 Nighthawk as an aggressor?
Despite recent reports that the F-117 Nighthawk did carry air-to-air weapons, the truth is, the famed “stealth fighter” was never a fighter at all. The F-117 was an attack aircraft, meaning it specialized in air-to-ground engagements and possessed no onboard radar, guns, or air-to-air missiles.
In fact, the Nighthawk could carry a maximum payload of two 2,000-pound bombs and really not much else. Lockheed Martin did propose an air-to-air capable iteration of the Nighthawk in the F-117N Seahawk that would have served on the Navy’s carriers, but the effort never came to fruition. You can read our full feature on that proposal here.
So why would you use the F-117 as an aggressor for air-combat drills if it has no air-to-air capabilities?
Well, to put it simply, it doesn’t really matter if the Nighthawk could actually shoot an opponent down for these types of exercises. The real point behind leveraging the now 40-year-old stealth jet as an aggressor is almost certainly all about training to locate and target stealth platforms in the sky.
Stealth does not make an aircraft invisible to radar, nor is radar the only way aircraft are targetted. The truth is, stealth is an overlapping series of technologies, production methodologies, and combat tactics that are all intended to delay detection and inhibit air defense systems from getting what’s called a “weapons-grade lock” – or a sufficient lock to really shoot an aircraft down.
Low-frequency radar has long been able to spot stealth aircraft in the sky, but isn’t accurate enough to actually target one.
Nonetheless, infrared-guided (heat-seeking) missiles can still sniff out the masked jet exhaust pouring out of the back of these aircraft, and of course, pilots can see them with their naked eye if they find themselves within visual range.
As the folks over at The Warzone have pointed out in the past, many of America’s 4th-generation fighters, non-stealth jets like the F-15, have already been equipped with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars designed specifically to aid in targeting the tiny radar cross-sections common to stealth aircraft and even cruise missiles.
In other words, these pilots have the gear – and now they’re getting the training.
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% 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.
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 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.
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.
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 US 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 US, 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.
Earlier this week, Russia officially unveiled amid much media attention its secret new fighter jet named “Checkmate,” or sometimes referred to now as the Su-75, at the MAKS-2021 air show in Moscow.
Checkmate indeed possesses all of the hallmarks of an impressive next-generation aircraft that can potentially hunt down the US Air Force’s F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters. But is that really the endgame?
Foreign export market
According to defense writer David Axe at Forbes, Rostec, the parent company of Russian plane manufacturer Sukhoi, will likely make Sukhoi’s new Checkmate fighter jet available to the foreign market.
In fact, Rostec’s recent teaser video for the jet “features actors portraying pilots from Vietnam, India, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates.”
He continued: “It’s obvious why Russia would want a fighter like Checkmate that can shoot down the United States’ own top fighters. It’s less clear that Vietnam, India, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates want the same thing. Here’s the rub. Without financing from foreign countries, there’s probably no way Checkmate gets built. But the fighter’s design might not appeal to the very buyers Moscow needs to make the project viable. And that would leave in the cold the one customer – the Russian air force – that might actually have a requirement for a fighter like Checkmate.”
Axe also cited Tom Cooper, an aviation expert and author, who described the Checkmate as “a pig in a poke.”
“The actual question is who is going to buy that pig in a poke?” he asked.
As reported in Popular Mechanics, the Checkmate comes with an “unusually pointy nose and an engine intake below the cockpit,” in addition to an “internal weapons bay designed to preserve its anti-radar shaping and can carry both air-to-air and air-to-ground ordnance, including both infrared- and radar-guided air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground and anti-ship missiles, guided and unguided bombs, and unguided rockets.”
Boasting a hefty price tag of $25 million to $30 million, the first Checkmate is expected to take flight in 2023, and the actual deliveries of combat-ready planes could start as early as 2026.
A big problem
Another reason to fast-track the new jet to the foreign export market is the fact that Russia can barely afford to finance the Su-57 program, which, all said and done, could potentially end up costing tens of billions of dollars.
“This Checkmate is facing exactly the same obstacles as the Su-57,” Cooper said.
“The Russian government … has no money to complete its development and get it into series production,” he continued.
Sukhoi Su-57 is a stealth-capable fighter jet that is the outcome of the Russian Air Force’s PAK FA fifth-generation fighter jet program. The single-seat, twin-engine aircraft offers a supersonic range of more than 1,500 kilometers, which is more than two times the range of the Su-27 fighter.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.
On July 13, TASS did a short report on what is expected to be the new Russian aircraft. TASS directly stated that the new jet would compete with the F-35, quoting Executive Director of Aviaport Aviation News Agency Oleg Panteleyev.
Panteleyev said that this is also the main reason why the teaser of the new design, released by Rostec, has been published in English. Rosoboronexport, as Panteleyev said, has invited over 120 delegations from 65 countries of the world to the aerospace show.
This suggests that this year’s edition of MAKS may be export-focused, with a significant emphasis placed on the promotion of the new aircraft.
It remains unclear whether the airframe is a prototype or just a mock-up.
The characteristics of the jet are also somewhat cryptic. TASS claims the jet would feature low RCS, high thrust-to-weight ratio, advanced weapons and significant payload – these are somewhat generic descriptors, usually assigned to most of the 5th-generation, or wannabe-5th-generation multirole combat aircraft.
The premiere is scheduled to take place on the first day of the MAKS show in Zhukovskiy – July 20, 2021. The Aviationist will have two correspondents on site and will probably be able to provide additional details on the new stealthy aircraft.
The shape seems to be (loosely) similar to the one of the YF-23.
According to some analysts, the new aircraft has been developed by the Sukhoi bureau. Based on the hashtags used on social media and images released so far the new type could be named “Checkmate.”
We may be dealing with an export product, modeled after the Su-57 Felon, but made cheaper to operate than the first of the Russian stealthy fighter aircraft.
Yesterday Rostec released an ad teasing the jet, also pointing to the export profile of the design, suggesting UAE, India, Vietnam and Argentina might be potential customers.
We have also noted that one of the pilots, in the last shot of the video, is wearing an American flight suit.
Still, for now, we know little about the jet, hence everybody needs to wait for it to be officially unveiled during MAKS 2021.
It is symptomatic, however, that Russia follows the footsteps of the US, creating a tandem of fifth-generation platforms. This may be viewed as an analogy of the US F-22/F-35 duo, with the Raptor being a counterpart of the Su-57, and Lighting being a counterpart of the new, lighter, single-engine design.
Panteleyev seemingly confirmed this, saying that the new, lighter design would be an answer to tactical problems.