Center for Strategic Communication

An F-22 over Alaska. Photo:Air Force

An F-22 over Alaska. Photo: Air Force

The fast, stealthy F-22 Raptor is “unquestionably” the best air-to-air fighter in the arsenal of the world’s leading air force. That’s what outgoing Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz wrote in 2009.

Three years later, a contingent of German pilots flying their latest Typhoon fighter have figured out how to shoot down the Lockheed Martin-made F-22 in mock combat. The Germans’ tactics, revealed in the latest Combat Aircraft magazine, represent the latest reality check for the $400-million-a-copy F-22, following dozens of pilot blackouts, and possibly a crash, reportedly related to problems with the unique g-force-defying vests worn by Raptor pilots.

In mid-June, 150 German airmen and eight twin-engine, non-stealthy Typhoons arrived at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska for an American-led Red Flag exercise involving more than 100 aircraft from Germany, the U.S. Air Force and Army, NATO, Japan, Australia and Poland. Eight times during the two-week war game, individual German Typhoons flew against single F-22s in basic fighter maneuvers meant to simulate a close-range dogfight.

The results were a surprise to the Germans and presumably the Americans, too. “We were evenly matched,” Maj. Marc Gruene told Combat Aircraft’s Jamie Hunter. The key, Gruene said, is to get as close as possible to the F-22 … and stay there. “They didn’t expect us to turn so aggressively.”

Gruene said the Raptor excels at fighting from beyond visual range with its high speed and altitude, sophisticated radar and long-range AMRAAM missiles. But in a slower, close-range tangle — which pilots call a “merge” — the bigger and heavier F-22 is at a disadvantage. “As soon as you get to the merge … the Typhoon doesn’t necessarily have to fear the F-22,” Gruene said.

This is not supposed to be the sort of reaction the F-22 inspires. For years the Air Force has billed the Raptor as an unparalleled aerial combatant. Even former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who in 2009 famously cut F-22 production to just 187 copies, called the stealth jet “far and away the best air-to-air fighter ever produced” and predicted “it will ensure U.S. command of the skies for the next generation.” And it’s slowly getting taken off the probation it incurred after seemingly suffocating pilots.

Admittedly, advanced air forces plan to do most of their fighting at long range and avoid the risky, close-in tangle — something Gruene acknowledged in his comments to Combat Aircraft. But there’s evidence that, in reality, most air combat occurs at close distance, despite air arms’ wishful thinking. That could bode poorly for the F-22′s chances in a future conflict.

In a 2008 study (big file!), the Air Force-funded think tank RAND warned against assuming long-range missiles will work. RAND looked at 588 air-to-air shoot-downs since the 1950s and counted just 24 that occurred with the attacker firing from beyond visual range. Historically, American long-range air-to-air missiles have been 90-percent less effective than predicted, RAND asserted.

Despite the historical facts, there persists in Air Force circles “a hypothetical vision of ultra-long range, radar-based, air-to-air combat,” to quote air power skeptic Pierre Sprey, co-designer of the brute-simple F-16 and A-10 warplanes.

It remains to be seen whether the Raptor and its AMRAAM missiles can reverse these trends. If long-range tactics fail, the F-22 force could very well find itself fighting up close with the latest fighters from China, Russia and other rival nations. And if the Germans’ experience is any indication, that’s the kind of battle the vaunted F-22s just might lose.

Update, July 31: Some commenters claim the Red Flag exercise is not indicative of the way the F-22 would fight in the real world. In an actual shooting war, an F-22′s opponent “won’t make it to visual range,” one reader asserted. The Raptor’s stealth would allow it to sneak up high and fast and kill the enemy from long range using an AMRAAM missile, commenters insist.

But that’s assuming two things. One, that the rules of engagement in a future conflict will allow to the Air Force to shoot down targets without visually identifying them — a risky assumption given the world’s increasingly crowded airspace. Two, that the AMRAAM even works. Missile-maker Raytheon hasn’t delivered a new AMRAAM in two years after it was found that the weapon’s rocket motor doesn’t work in a cold environment, which is exactly where the high-flying F-22 is most at home.

Even when the AMRAAM functions as designed, it’s still not a reliable long-range killer. Since the AMRAAM entered front-line service in 1992, it has been used by Air Force F-15s and F-16s in at least nine aerial battles resulting in the destruction of nine Iraqi and Serbian aircraft. But that’s pretty much all we know. Public data “does not include the number of shots taken or the engagement range,” Air Force Lt. Col. Patrick Higby wrote in a 2005 paper.

Higby, for his part, concluded that at least four of the AMRAAM kills occurred within visual range. In the balance, long-range missiles are not as effective as the Air Force has long hoped, Higby wrote. “Air-to-air combat has not transformed into a long-range slugfest of technology.”

Given that even the F-22 could find itself in a close-range dogfight, the stealthy jet has other disadvantages besides its heavy weight and large size. Technical problems forced the Air Force to omit a helmet-mounted sight from the Raptor. This key piece of gear allows pilots in other planes — including the German Typhoon — to lock missiles onto a target merely by looking at it. “We had a Raptor salad for lunch,” one German pilot quipped after using his jet’s helmet sight and maneuverability to get the best of an F-22 over Alaska.