The fast, stealthy F-22 Raptor is “unquestionably” the best air-to-air fighter in the arsenal of the world’s leading air force. That’s what outgoing Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz wrote in 2009.
Three years later, a contingent of German pilots flying their latest Typhoon fighter have figured out how to shoot down the Lockheed Martin-made F-22 in mock combat. The Germans’ tactics, revealed in the latest Combat Aircraft magazine, represent the latest reality check for the $400-million-a-copy F-22, following dozens of pilot blackouts, and possibly a crash, reportedly related to problems with the unique g-force-defying vests worn by Raptor pilots.
In mid-June, 150 German airmen and eight twin-engine, non-stealthy Typhoons arrived at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska for an American-led Red Flag exercise involving more than 100 aircraft from Germany, the U.S. Air Force and Army, NATO, Japan, Australia and Poland. Eight times during the two-week war game, individual German Typhoons flew against single F-22s in basic fighter maneuvers meant to simulate a close-range dogfight.
No, despite the impression you might get from Danger Room, the F-22 isn’t a turkey. The F-22 was designed explicitly to avoid the “knife fight” and go for the long range kill. Its high speed and high altitude, in addition to making it a much tougher target, also impart range to its main battery, the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile. The entire philosophy behind the F-22 was “see first, shoot first, kill first” in an effort to avoid the type of maneuvering fight that had previously been the norm in air to air combat.
The article of course notes that while this has long been the ideal of Air Force tactics, it hasn’t really been the case for most of the history of missile armed combat. But the raw numbers are a tad deceiving. While technology and rules of engagement in Vietnam and other conflicts of that time led to the requirement of visual identification before engagement (leading to a turning fight), by the time Desert Storm rolled around, BVR engagements were the norm. And while the early Sparrow missiles were poor at the dogfight engagement, again, by Desert Storm, they were far more reliable, and accounted for the vast majority of air-to-air kills. And with the introduction of the AMRAAM right after Desert Storm, the trend has accelerated. To the best of my knowledge, every USAF kill post-Desert Storm has been via AMRAAM.
To be sure, BVR engagement isn’t perfect. Witness the shootdown of two US Blackhawks in the norther No-Fly zone in 1994 (actually, one of those was shot down by an AIM-9).
The Typhoon’s large delta wing and canard planes make it a formidable opponent in the turning engagement. Now, the F-22 is no slouch there, either, but in that environment, you are entering the realm where training and native ability begin to override technological aspects of the airframes. Further, without access to the rules of the training engagements, it is impossible to tell how much the set-up favored one side or the other. But let’s just say that sending the Germans up to get clubbed like baby seals again and again wouldn’t provide them much in the way of valid training, which is kind of the point of having exercises in the first place.