The F-22’s new normal

Despite the F-22's lingering problems, the super-jets continue to fly, pretend-fight and, presumably, win.

The Air Force would like you to know that even though it does not have a permanent fix for its F-22 Raptors’ onboard oxygen systems, the super-jets are flying and training as normal for the high-end missions that are their métier.

Earlier this month, a batch of F-22s played in an exercise with “China” written all over it, escorting Air Force B-1 bombers on a “long-range strike” mission into “an anti-access target area,” the Air Force said. Everything apparently went fine and the units that participated were careful to take the appropriate precautions:

“The objective of this operation was to validate the long range strike capability of the B-1s as well as the F-22 and F-16s ability to escort them into an anti-access target area,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Kunkel, 90th Fighter Squadron commander, who sent five 90th FS pilots, a 302d FS pilot, 20 maintainers, a flight surgeon and a bio environmental engineer to Eielson AFB for the exercise.

Having experienced no reported unpleasantness, the F-22 crews were able to demonstrate the newest upgrades to their aircraft:

This was the first time the Raptors participated in this exercise which integrated with multiple platforms from different major commands. It was also the first time that increment 3.1, a recent F-22 hardware and software upgrade, was used in a large force employment exercise.

“Increment 3.1 gives the Raptor the means to find and engage targets on the ground. During this operation it was critical to follow-on forces completing their missions,” said Kunkel. “Our integration of 3.1 went extremely well. We were able to glean invaluable lessons from this exercise that we had not seen before and we completed increment 3.1 upgrades for two of the pilots.”

So there you have it — even as some of the F-22’s lingering technical problems remain unresolved, it’s also phasing in upgrades to take it to higher levels of performance.

For all the rumblings about “Air-Sea Battle” and the need to coordinate with other services to defeat “anti-access” challenges, this month’s exercise sounds like textbook, bluest-blue Air Force: Bombers need to punch through contested airspace to get their target. Commanders expect red air, so the B-1s take a fighter escort to clear the way. No sneaky stealth tactics, no trying to creep past enemy sensors — just classic “Twelve O’Clock High” heroics, updated for the 21st century.

The Air Force did not detail the results of the exercise, but we can presume the good guys won — the F-22 is said to be almost invincible in its pretend match-ups. When others are running the game, however, things aren’t that clear. Monday’s Air Force announcement brought to mind the RAND war game, quoted last year by CSBA’s experts, that found a big potential weakness in Air Force doctrines:

[Consider the] Taiwan Strait scenario in which the entire F-22 force operated from Guam in order to base outside the reach of Chinese ballistic missiles. Heavy F-22 attrition occurred due to the roughly nine-to-one numerical advantage Chinese Su-27 and Su-30 Flankers enjoyed over the Taiwan Strait operating from their nearby airfields.

Even though the analysis assumed that F-22s would be able to shoot down large numbers of opposing Chinese Flankers without losses even when heavily outnumbered, by the time the F-22s ran out of missiles and fuel there were enough unengaged Flankers still in the air over the strait to begin attacking U.S. air refueling tankers and E-8 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft. As a result, F-22s were lost not to enemy fighters but to fuel exhaustion because they were unable to rendezvous with tankers and get the fuel to make it back to Guam.

This could be one reason why the Air Force and Navy (and, theoretically, the other services) say they want to collaborate on new ways of doing things in Air-Sea Battle. Whether the Air Force writes new tactics to include its new bomber, or brings in the Navy to support engagements — maybe Aegis warships below could even the score against anti-air defenses or enemy interceptors — the Raptors’ new normal will probably change again.