This article originally appeared on

It was the most impressive fighter aircraft seen to date.

Designed around a breakthrough technology, it was heavily armed with the latest air-to-air weapons and was capable of flying faster than its enemies and destroying previously invulnerable enemy aircraft.

One British pilot called it “the most formidable fighter” that the world had seen to date. Its pilots said it was a delight to fly.

Yet military historians today say the German Messerschmidt 262 fighter had little effect on the air war over Europe during World War II, and two military aviation experts last week warned that the U.S. Air Force has likely set itself up to repeat the harsh lesson of the Me-262 “Stormbird” in a future conflict against an adversary with a modern air force.

Simply put, said Pierre Sprey and James P. Stevenson, the F-22 Raptor is shaping up to be the Sturmvogel of the 21st century: a dazzling piece of technology that fatally ignores some of the unbending realities of aerial combat.

On surface, the Raptor debate ended six months ago. After years of controversy, the Air Force and Defense Department reached a final agreement on the Raptor program, with DoD and Congress approving full production of the stealth fighter while capping the program at 183 aircraft, a 50-percent reduction of the 381 planes that the service had long said it needed at a minimum.

(For Tyndall Air Force Base, where the Raptor pilot training program is located, this has meant a reduction in training squadrons from two to one, with 29 of the sleek fighters to be used in preparing pilots for combat units.)

But to Sprey, a founding member of the so-called “fighter mafia” group that during the 1960s and 1970s ramrodded the F-15, F-16 and A-10 programs into being despite fierce internal opposition, and military author Stevenson, who has written extensively on the Navy’s F/A-18 and A-12 fighters, the Air Force has created a major crisis in its future combat capability by sticking to the Raptor program.

The two analysts presented their stark findings to a symposium at the nonprofit Center for Defense Information on Friday in Washington, D.C. The two analysts provided their findings to The News Herald, and Sprey elaborated on the issues in a telephone interview.

Sprey said his briefing focused on the time-tested factors that define an effective fighter plane: (1) See the enemy first; (2) outnumber the enemy; (3) outmaneuver the enemy to fire, and (4) kill the enemy quickly.

“The Raptor is a horrible failure on almost every one of those criteria,” Sprey said.

The stellar attribute of the F-22 — its invisibility on enemy radar due to a computer-aided stealth design — is a “myth,” Sprey said. That is because in order to locate the enemy beyond visual range, the Raptor (like every other fighter) must turn on its own radar, immediately betraying its location.

Nor is the aircraft design effective simply because its advocates insist so, Sprey said. The 1980s-era F-117 stealth fighter was supposed to be invisible too, but post-Gulf War studies showed that the aircraft had been spotted by Iraq’s ground-based radars, he said.

And in the 77-day aerial campaign against Serbia in 1999, the adversary’s “1950s-era radar” managed to locate and shoot down two F-117s, Stevenson pointed out in his presentation. The situation is actually worse today, he said, because many nations have acquired advanced missiles that can home in on radar emissions.

“Who do you want in a dark alley?” Stevenson asked. “The cop with the flashlight, or the crook with a gun that fires light-homing bullets?”

Because the Raptor ultimately ballooned into a weapon that costs $361 million per copy, even Congress could not stomach the total program cost exceeding $65 billion, Sprey said. As a result, the Air Force is now committed to fielding a fighter program that lacks sufficient numbers to prevail in a major conflict, however effective the individual aircraft may be.

“Hitler had 70 Me-262s in combat,” Sprey said. “They were crushed by the force of 2,000 inferior P-51s that the United States had in the air.”

Early reports from mock deployments of the Raptor also show a major shortfall in the fighter’s sustainability in combat, Sprey said.

“The F-16 costs one-tenth of the F-22 and flies three times as often due to the issues of stealth, complexity and maintenance affecting the Raptor,” Sprey said. Sustainability and the number of aircraft available to fight on any given day, he added, are “vastly more important” than the quality of the F-22. “You have to have numerical superiority to win.”

On the last two points, maneuverability and capability for a “quick kill,” the two analysts assert that the Raptor is inferior to the F-16 and several allied fighter designs in the crucible of “energy-maneuverability.”

“Some (experts) assert that in the next air war,” all of the radars will be off and the air war will merge to air combat maneuvering,” Stevenson observed.

The Raptor’s performance in that mode will be “disastrous,” Sprey added.

“The only thing that will bail the U.S. Air Force out of this mess is the fact that they still have a lot of F-16s in service,” Sprey said, “The day they send the F-16s to the ‘boneyard’ is the day the service becomes a non-Air Force.”

This report first appeared in the Panama City News Herald.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment