GEAR & TECH

What the F-22 will do in a war with China

The F-22 Raptor is kind of an underrated badass. Now overshadowed by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Raptor never really got its chance to stand out on its own. But with the U.S. Air Force increasingly butting heads with other air forces around the world, the real power of the Raptor is starting to show.


General Mark Welsh, then-Air Force Chief of Staff once told the story of a Raptor pilot who snuck up on an Iranian F-4 Phantom who was moving to intercept and shoot down a U.S. drone. After flying below two Iranian planes to check out their armaments, he pulled up to their left wing, surprising them, and told them to go home. They did.

Kinda like that, except when the Air Force does it, it's real and not a movie. You'll always have the sky dick, Navy.

The F-22 was born out of a desire to replace both the F-16 and F-15 with an air superiority fighter unrivaled in air-to-air kills. Even with the development of the F-35, there are those who still believe the F-22 is the superior airframe and that Raptor production stopped too soon.

They have a valid point.

Nowadays, the F-22 is mostly being wasted on patrols and alert missions or other exercises that don't require the Raptor's particular set of skills, according to a Government Accountability Office report. And since such missions don't require the F-22 specifically, pilots aren't able to trained to make use of capabilities unique to the aircraft, meaning it rarely has its full range of abilities realized.

In combat zones, the mere presence of an F-22 commands respect. Currently, Russian, Syrian, and Iranian aircraft are operating in the skies above Syria. In 587 encounters there, the Raptors forced the other aircraft to back off without further aggression.

A U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter jet (front) taxis past a C17 aircraft after landing at Kadena U.S. Air Force Base on Japan's southwestern island of Okinawa

The success (though limited) in Syria showcases not only the capability of the Raptors and their pilots, but also what other air forces' pilots think of the airframe — and the potential for future roles in other battlespaces, specifically China.

The Commander of Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Charles Brown, has an idea of what that role might look like. While the Chinese are certain to try to jam U.S. communications in the event of a conflict, Brown wants the F-22 to frustrate and confuse the Chinese. The idea has been dubbed "Rapid Raptor" and features four escort F-22s and a USAF C-17 transport plane to be deployable within 24 hours to go anywhere in the PACOM area of responsibility.

The "Rapid Raptor" idea calls for the Elmendorf AFB, Alaska-based 3rd Wing of F-22s to quickly disperse in the event of a conflict, being able to refuel from the C-17's wing tanks wherever they go. The idea quickly spread to the rest of the Air Force's F-22 fleet, most notably in Eastern Europe where F-22s are a deterrent to Russian aggression. The Air Force even wants to use the Rapid concept on other airframes.

In the event of a conflict, these spread-out fighter formations could more easily communicate through Chinese jamming via the use of satellite communications. They would also receive target orders this way. In the event of the Chinese disabling or destroying satellites, the small formations would have enough information to make informed battlefield decisions and operate independently.

"They get enough direction early enough from me so that they can actually go execute," Brown told a group of reporters at the Pentagon. "When we look at our pacing threat of China, we got to think differently about how we do things."