The Raptor Arrives

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

The F-22 Raptor performing at the Fort Worth Alliance Air Show in 2010. (Lockheed Martin)
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Their love of the Raptor is not universally shared. At a time when Iraq is eating billions, the Army is clamoring for more bullets and armor, and the cost of the Joint Strike Fighter is escalating, the Raptor’s cost—$258 million apiece— seems like a lot for an airplane that has no competition and that will be virtually useless against what is probably the most common threat U.S. forces now face: suicide bombers. Not to mention an airplane whose job can still be done, with various degrees of success, by other aircraft. Still, says military analyst John Pike, “even if they don’t have a clue why they need it now…they know that something like the Raptor might come in handy in 2040.”

But in war, unexpected things happen. In 1999, an F-117 Nighthawk, the first fighter designed for stealth, was brought down in Yugoslavia by ground fire—at night. It’s one thing for a bunch of veteran pilots to practice scenarios over the Gulf of Mexico against simulated Flankers and advanced SAM sites, another for regular guys to fly it for real. And in quieter moments, that’s something even Cabral acknowledges. “The F-15 has been around for 30 years and its tactics have evolved,” he says. “But we don’t have a lot of Raptor data points yet—we’re still building them. It’s a big gray area. Honestly, we don’t know what we don’t know.”

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