The Raptor Arrives
Debriefing the pilots who got the first crack at the F-22.
- By Carl Hoffman
- Air & Space magazine, November 2005
Eric Schulzinger/Lockheed Martin
(Page 3 of 4)
F-15s and F-16s fly in close visual formation; because they’re not stealthy, they must work together to scan the airspace in front of them. “In an F-15, you live and die by putting your radar in the right piece of sky to find threats and ID them,” says Cabral. But looking from the ground to 60,000 feet—120 degrees of sky—takes the F-15C’s radar 14 seconds. Flying within visual formation, the flight lead takes the low half and the wingman takes the high half. A sensor called the Radar Warning Receiver indicates if an airplane or a SAM is looking at you. Flying at 500 knots (575 mph), Cabral says he alternates between the RWR and radar, while using “my eyeballs and moving my head to look for stuff. If the radars pick something up—bandits are merely green blips, and you don’t know if a blip is one airplane or two close together—I have to ask: Do I need to defend myself? Is it a threat? Or do I need to call an AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft] and give them the information?”
Flying and fighting in the F-15 is “task prioritization,” Cabral continues. “You have to generate a mental picture of the airspace and battlefield in your mind. Sometimes I even literally sketch a picture on my kneepad, all while talking on comms and cross-checking the systems.”
In the Raptor, on the other hand, the radar sweeps 120 degrees of sky instantly, and computers synthesize the incoming data and display the results on a single eight-inch-square color display. Bandits are red triangles; their flight path, altitude, and relative speed are apparent at a glance. Friendlies are green circles. Unknown aircraft are yellow squares, other F/A-22s are blue. SAM sites are depicted as yellow pentagons, the sizes varying relative to the distance at which the radars can pick up the stealthy Raptors. The Raptor’s radar range is classified, but Stapleton says he has “seen targets beyond 320 miles.” Attack and defensive displays, respectively on the right and left of the main display, can show tactical information in even more detail. The attack display, for instance, can show all tracked aircraft—“tracks”—in the current shoot list, which tracks you’ve deployed missiles against, and what the status of those missiles is. The defensive display, on the other hand, might show which tracks are illuminating the Raptor and what their range is. Says Dave “Shotgun” Lopez, a pilot in the 43rd: “The airplane is just a huge sponge in the sky soaking up information.”
Cabral recalls that in one training exercise, “I was flying a -15 with Raptors against SAMs, and the Raptor is high, ‘meching’ the space [working the radar mechanics to scan the airspace], calling where everything is. I don’t have to work the radar mechanics myself. I put the missile in the air and make the kill and no one even sees the Raptor.”
Raptors talk to one another over a secure digital link, so every Raptor in a formation knows about the others: how much fuel a wingman has, which weapons have been fired, even which enemy aircraft have been targeted. “Everything he sees, I see, and vice versa,” Cabral says, and what they see is a real-time, constantly evolving and updated God’s-eye view of the airspace.
Because of the aircraft’s stealth and its knowledge of what the others are doing, Raptor formations can be much more widely spaced than F-15 formations; the aircraft can stay beyond visual range of one another—what’s known as “detached mutual support.”
“Typically we’re outside of five miles from each other in different chunks of the sky,” says Cabral; “even if [a bogey] sees one of us, he won’t see all of us. And that gives us a significantly different tactical mindset. We can pick and choose who and when to engage.” If the Raptors are attacking SAM sites, for instance, “it may not be necessary to kill every aircraft that’s in front of you,” says Cabral, because some may not even know he’s there. “I can get past them, get the SAMs, and then do whatever—I can fly away or I can sit up there parked or choose what to kill.”
The next portion of training is working against SAM threats and planning for JDAM—joint direct attack munition—delivery. From days 50 to 60 the scenarios grow more complex: fighting against bandits that outnumber you; working in four-ship formations; night attacks; even taking out cruise missiles—with its enhanced radar and high speed, the Raptor is better suited than F-15s for going after and killing those.