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Video Above: Air War in 2050 - Air Force Research Lab Commander on Golden Horde

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

While the Air Force’s fast-emerging 6th-gen stealth fighter continues to inspire massive interest and the global F-35 customer base is expanding like wildfire, it might be easy to forget about the aircraft many say is the single best “air supremacy” air-to-air fighter in the world … the F-22.

F-22

With the highly secretive 6th-generation aircraft already airborne and large numbers of F-35s showing up on NATO’s Eastern Flank, it makes sense that F-22s could easily be overlooked. Not so fast, however, as the Pentagon is sending 12 Air Force F-22 Raptors to support NATO Allied Air Command at the 32nd Tactical Air Base in Lask, Poland, according to an Air Force report.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Paul Lopez, F-22 Demo Team commander, flies next to a KC-135 Stratotanker during an aerial refueling mission over Spokane, Washington, June 20, 2019. Representing the U.S. Air Force and Air Combat Command, the F-22 Demo Team travels to 25 air shows a season to showcase the performance and capabilities of the world's premier 5th-generation fighter. (U.S. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Samuel Eckholm)

U.S. Air Force Maj. Paul Lopez, F-22 Demo Team commander, flies next to a KC-135 Stratotanker during an aerial refueling mission over Spokane, Washington, June 20, 2019. Representing the U.S. Air Force and Air Combat Command, the F-22 Demo Team travels to 25 air shows a season to showcase the performance and capabilities of the world's premier 5th-generation fighter. (U.S. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Samuel Eckholm)

Air policing will be the primary mission of the F-22s, the service report says, adding that the aircraft will be moving to Europe from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. The F-22 has certainly established its ability to deploy in recent years, particularly in light of the Air Force’s Rapid Raptor program now in place for several years. The Rapid Raptor program, focused on speed, maintenance, readiness and deployability, stipulates that F-22s operate with an ability to deploy anywhere in the world within 24hours. The program prepares four F-22s and crew members with C-17 support, fuel and weapons with the specific purpose of enabling a “first-strike” capability in remote or austere places around the world.

Readiness for the F-22, Air Force officials explain, hinges upon a new software delivery strategy which sees incremental improvements less as “products” for pre-planned, spread apart adjustments -- but rather a steady continuous “pipeline” of upgrades.

This modernization approach, firmly oriented toward sustained readiness for combat, has been in place with the F-22 for many years now. Several years back, the Air Force and Lockheed Martin put a fleet-wide, F-22 upgrade in place called 3.2b which added new software to several of its cutting edge weapons systems. The idea, as explained by senior Air Force weapons developers many years ago, is to enable a continuous and ongoing “stream” of upgrades and avoid having to wait for software “blocks” or “increments” which can take several years to develop.

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“When it comes to software, none of the old rules apply. It is a service and a pipeline today. We have to develop software differently. With the F-22, there has been a shift from a traditional acquisition program into a continuous stream of delivery,” William Roper, Former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, Acquisition, Technology & Logistics, told an audience several years ago at an Air Force Association Symposium.

As part of this “agile acquisition” program focused on software, the Air Force has now fully validated two new weapons for the F-22. The technical concept is grounded upon the premise that hardware configurations, air frames, weapons’ racks and sensors - can all be changed with upgrades with software, .

The two new weapons are advanced variants of existing weapons - the AIM-9X air-to-air missile and the AIM 120-D.

This faster-paced software-driven strategy is intended to reinforce programs like the Rapid Raptor program to ensure that deployed F-22s operate at an optimal level of lethality.

This F-22 deployment is also is quite interesting because, although the F-22 is thought by many to be the best air-to-air supremacy fighter in the world, it also does have substantial ground attack capabilities as well.

Few might remember that F-22s were deployed to attack ISIS in 2014 in what was largely a ground attack and “aerial quarterback” sensing and targeting mission. Given this, it would make sense that the F-22 could also function in critical ways to hold enemy ground air defenses at risk. Certainly an F-22 could use its stealth and speed to evade detection in order to fire precision air-to-ground weapons at enemy ground locations such as surface to air missiles. In this capacity, the Air Shielding could also function defensively as a deterrent against ground-launched enemy rockets and missiles, something the Russian military is well-known to do.

The Air Force report describes the “Air Shielding” mission as designed to increase the air and missile defense posture along the Eastern Flank of NATO’s alliance and is purely a defensive mission to shield and protect allied territory and populations and is a key component of NATO’s Deterrence and Defense posture.”

It does not seem surprising that the Air Force report would highlight “defensive” as a mission description, because placing F-22s close to the Russian border is likely to make the Kremlin very nervous. Certainly the Pentagon does not want to signal any kind of offensive strike, however the F-22 is known as a “first-to-attack” kind of weapon. This capability could certainly contribute to NATO’s deterrence posture in “defensive” missions by ensuring that long-range rocket and missile launch sites could quickly be destroyed should Russia contemplate attacking NATO. This has been a predicament for Ukraine, as they have not had the air superiority necessary to destroy Russian rocket and missile launchers and have therefore been victim to countless missile and rocket attacks on civilian areas, including children.

Should US F-22s, and NATO F-35s establish air superiority, something quite likely given the small number of 5th-generation stealth fighters operated by Russia, those launchers and other ground targets might quickly be eliminated from the air by NATO forces. This, I would imagine, may likely be the point of sending the F-22s. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization