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All hail the Raptor: The first new Air Force fighter in 30 years debuted at Nellis Air Force Base to rave reviews. (Eric Schulzinger/Lockheed Martin)

The Raptor Arrives

Debriefing the pilots who got the first crack at the F-22.

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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.

The graduating ride is called a Global Strike Profile: “It’s putting everything we learn together in a high-threat missile environment,” explains Cabral. That could be Raptors escorting B-2s or F-117s, Raptors escorting Raptors, even Raptors escorting F-15s.

In sum, what the pilots learn is that the Raptor is brainy, agile, fast, and almost invisible to radar. “Based on those four tenets,” says Garland, “we say it’s best for high-threat surface-to-air environments where other weapons have to stop.” One aircraft that had to stop, he says, is the F-15C during the 1991 Gulf War. “We could attack any air threat with an F-15C, no problem, as long as it engaged us. But if that air threat decided to hide in a SAM zone and not come out and fight, we had to stop. We couldn’t chase that airplane into a high-threat environment.”

Potentially high-threat environments include China, Russia, Iran—places defended by the latest SAM batteries, which transmit information among themselves by deeply buried fiber-optic cable. If the United States decides to go in, the Raptor will lead the charge. “We don’t have anything on the streets besides the Raptor that can gain access to those threats,” says Tyndall’s Stapleton. “We can use B-2s or F-117s, but they’re subsonic and can only go in slow. If a MiG-21 with an Atoll missile gets a tally on one, he can actually get them, so the B-2s and -117s are limited to night strikes. Only the Raptor gives us the speed and stealth to sneak up and open the line of scrimmage 24/7.”

Today at Tyndall, the only threat is the pounding rain and low ceiling. The Raptors are grounded, so Cabral, Krumm, Lopez, Captain Jeremy “Huck” Durtsch, and Christopher “Moto” Niemi gather in the squadron’s spotless new bar and pour a round of Balvenie single-malt to celebrate Lopez’s first Raptor flight, which he made the day before. “After the sim, nothing surprised me,” Lopez says, taking a sip. “I didn’t feel behind the jet at all.”

“It’s such a giant change it’s hard to fathom,” says Moto. “You see everything. All you do is make battle management decisions, and you don’t make bad ones. You just overrun everything with your speed and stealth. They don’t even know you’re there and you’re calling them dead.” Says Durtsch, “It’s like clubbing baby seals.”

I’m having a hard time figuring out how much of their enthusiasm is due to the Raptor’s seeming invincibility and how much is due to their unflappable, upbeat nature. Probably a bit of both.

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