Lightning Downs Raptor! How the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters ‘overwhelmed’ the F-22 Raptors for one of the biggest aviation contracts in the world

The single-seat, twin-engine F-22 Raptor is considered one of the best tactical fighters in the world. However, a lesser known fact about this jet is that the United States was in the process of manufacturing a naval variant of it.

The Raptor was developed at the Aeronautical Systems Center, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. It entered service with the United States Air Force (USAF) in December 2005.

The F-22 was meant to be an air superiority jet aircraft, but its design also allowed it to conduct ground attack, electronic warfare and signals intelligence missions. The aircraft was to replace the USAF’s F-15 fighter jets while placing more emphasis on stealth, agility and range.

The Raptor, powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 engines with augmented turbofans, was capable of reaching and maintaining speeds as high as Mach 2.25. It also had the ability to “super-cruise” – maintaining supersonic speeds without using afterburners.

The F-22 is best known for its super maneuverability, due to its “high thrust-to-weight ratio, fly-by-wire flight control system, and 2D thrust vectoring capability.

US Air Force F-22 Raptors

However, the service officially ended production of these aircraft in April 2009 due to cost overruns. Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that the Pentagon would end Lockheed’s F-22 Raptor program and instead focus on increasing production of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

The Air Force received the last F-22 in 2012. As of May 2020, the USAF had delivered 185 of 195 total Raptors.

Why a naval variant was planned

The F-22 proved so capable that Congress urged the US Navy to consider adopting a swept-wing version of this new warplane – as a potentially cheaper alternative to developing its own. carrier-based replacement fighter – under the NATF (Naval Advanced Tactical Fighter) which started in 1988.

In exchange for this, the USAF agreed to consider a modified version of the carrier-based stealth bomber developed by the Navy under its Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA) program as a replacement for their aging F-111 fighter jets.

File image for representation

The deal would (theoretically) be beneficial and profitable as it would allow the Air Force to leverage Nav’s research and development for its new bomber, while the Navy relied on the Air Force for its new fighter. .

Cost and other factors

In late 1988, a Naval ATF (NATF) Program Office was established at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and existing ATF Dem/Val contracts were amended to include studies of potential NATF variants.

However, the NATF program and associated plans for a naval variant – NATF-22 – were quickly seen as costly, as the Major Aircraft Review reduced peak production rates for the ATF and NATF. This had the effect of increasing the cost of the program considerably.

In 1990, Admiral Richard Dunleavy, the official responsible for defining the Navy’s requirements for the new fighter, reportedly said he saw no way to fit the F-22 into an affordable plan for naval aviation. Therefore, the idea of ​​NATF-22 was dropped in early 1991.

This was primarily due to the Navy realizing that a series of upgrades to its existing F-14 aircraft could meet the Navy’s air superiority needs through 2015.

Some thought that imposing a naval requirement on an existing F-22 program would be similar to the error that the Department of Development (DOD) did in developing the F-111.

In that program, the department had asked the Air Force to add naval requirements to an existing Air Force engineering and manufacturing development concept “with minimal disruption” to the program. . Subsequently, the naval version of the F-111 was significantly heavier and therefore canceled in favor of a new Navy aircraft, the F-14 Tomcat.

File Image: F-35B

Even if the US Navy had chosen to pursue the carrier-compatible variant of the F-22, there would have been many technical hurdles to overcome. Aircraft designed for transport operations must have the ability to handle a very different set of take-off and landing challenges than land-based aircraft.

The fuselage needed to be more physically robust, with a reinforced nose gear and reinforced fuselage, to be able to withstand the forces applied to it during catapult launches and short range landings which are supported by a tail hook present at the back of the plane.

The landing gear had to be designed for a sink rate of 24 feet/s. The NATF-22 is also expected to take advantage of the same type of variable-sweep wing approach seen on the F-14. The purpose of this would be to provide the aircraft with the ability to fly slowly enough to land safely aboard an aircraft carrier.

This variable-sweep wing design concept itself presented many problems for engineers to resolve. The Navy was already managing the high cost of maintaining the F-14 Tomcat’s sweep wing equipment.

A new sweeping wing design would probably not help reduce the high operational costs associated with the Tomcat. Even with fixed wings, the F-22 remains one of the most expensive fighter platforms to operate.

Also in terms of capability, the Navy’s existing Tomcats proved to be faster than the fast and maneuverable F-22. Moreover, these aircraft, despite their high maintenance costs, were still much cheaper than building a new stealth fighter for Navy aircraft carriers.

Robert M. Larson