America’s F-22 Raptor is generally regarded as being vastly superior to other operational fighters. Its combination of low radar observability, high situational awareness and high energy kinematics appear to put it in a class of its own, but it is not invincible. Here are several ways the F-22 could be countered.
On the ground
Nazi Germany’s Messerschmitt Me 262 was the Raptor of it age, with far superior capabilities to any Allied fighter. The simple way to counter the Me 262 was to destroy it on the ground or when it was taking-off or landing. The Raptor is, like any aircraft, similarly vulnerable on the ground. Adding to their vulnerability is their small overall fleet size –and high dependence on maintenance. It is inevitable that any potential aggressor to the US has studied the viability of Special Forces raids on Raptor bases (as well as other high value assists, such as AWACS bases). Historical examples of the cost and military effectiveness of such raids are many, and include those of the British SAS in World War II and the Falklands, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Today unmanned aircraft offer a lower risk attack option for would-be attackers. The Raptor’s aircrew themselves are the most vulnerable part of the US air dominance principle and would also be targeted.
Quantity again quality
Considering a F-22 has six AMRAAMs, and assuming (an unlikely) 100% probability of kill for each missile, it is easy to see that swamping US defences with low quality unmanned threats (with the odd high level fighter mixed in to prevent complacency) could be a good way to exhaust AMRAAM stocks and distract the small Raptor force- or to allow the real fighters to get closer to the F-22s.
Distraction & HVA attack
The emphasis on long range for the USAF’s next fighter may be a tacit acknowledgement that the Raptor’s endurance has proved disappointing. Certainly several official graphics published in the 1990s regarding range performance of the F-22 seem to challenge credibility. With this in mind another way to strain the small F-22 force is to drag it into the wrong section of sky with repeated advances and withdrawals by widely spaced formations.
The F-22, like every fighter, is dependent on air-to-air tanking. Knocking out tankers will be a priority to any peer air force facing the F-22.
Non conventional sensors
Much has been made of infra-red search and track’s potential for the detection of F-22s, but it should be noted that Typhoon pilots – who have at their command the best IRST in service- only believe their fighter has a chance against the Raptor in the WVR arena. Though a IRST is useful (and almost everyone other than the Raptor and older F-16s carries one nowadays) it has a far shorter range in most conceivable scenarios than the Raptor’s APG-77 radar. It is probably fair to say that the current state of IRST technology is not sufficient to make any aircraft safe from a Raptor. Similarly L-band radar (a frequency range that the F-22 is not designed to counter) is not currently at a level of maturity to offer much. Bi-static radar refers to two or more radars in an actual (or relatively, in the case of aircraft) static position to each other and sharing information. A stealth aircraft flying between them will find it hard to hide.
The F-22’s second generation stealth design is vulnerable to longer wavelength radars, and USAF knows it: note that all 6th generation fighter concepts are tail-less.
The next revolution in radar technology is likely to be ‘quantum radar‘(QR). This radical new technology, which is being actively researched in the US, China and the UK, would have no difficulty in finding a second generation (the F-117 was the first generation) stealth aircraft like the F-22. There are several- very different- proposed models of how a QR would work, one being put forward by Lockheed Martin. China claimed to have tested the first QR in 2016. QR technology is in its infancy and it will be some time before it neutralises the advantages of current reduced RCS aircraft.
The question of how to survive a Raptor attack could be rephrased as how to defeat the AMRAAM. The AMRAAM is the sole truly beyond visual range air-to-air weapon of the F-22; defeat that and the F-22 is just another agile fighter – and a large one without a helmet mounted sight, and a small amount of heat seekers (two as opposed to most fighter’s four).
Though the latest AMRAAMs are very different weapon to the first ones, it is still the weapon that most US’ adversaries would concentrate learning to counter, and is thus a vulnerable point in the Raptor concept. Though a handful of non-Russian nations use the Sparrow or indigenous weapons, the vast majority use AMRAAM, so it is the most studied air-to-air weapon. So few radar-guided missiles are launched against high-end aircraft defence systems that nobody really knows whether the advantage lies with the attacker or defender. Certainly digital radio frequency memory (DRFM) jammers will offer a real challenge to AMRAAM. Though it is traditionally thought that the Russians (the forever, and probably unjustified, notional threat) specialise in offensive jamming, and the West in defensive systems, it would be unwise to assume that countering AMRAAM has not been a high priority.
Though the latest AIM-120D is far cry from the original ‘Slammer’, it is a weapon urgently in need of replacement. That USAF is only now looking into this may offer some solace to America’s potential enemies, as developing a new air-to-air missile can take 20 years (or even longer in the case of the MBDA Meteor).
Does it need to be countered?
One analyst Hush-Kit spoke to noted, “The best way to counter the F-22? Certainly don’t try to match it with a fighter, dollar to dollar. Don’t waste money on countering it. The F-22 is a sink-trap, you can’t outspend it. But even trying to (match it) will cripple your procurement and R&D budget… invest in sensors, SA (situational awareness) and SAM (surface to air missiles) – and intelligent systems not platforms… Russia was too smart to build a F-22 analogue, the Su-57 is a more modest aircraft (but even with this, the air force won’t get many). The Su-57 is more about pride and marketing anyway… If the Third Offset proves a sound idea (and many doubt it is) – then the US enemies will crack it and this will defeat current stealth aircraft. Though to be honest, the F-22 is a red herring. Look how it is used over the Middle East now, look what it delivers: a great ‘Big Picture’ view and the delivery of a few guided munitions. The US only picks fights with failed states with low technology. Did we need the ATF, and all the billions it soaked up, to do that?”
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