USAF often touts F-22 as being the best fighter aircraft in the world. Is that really so? What are requirements for a good fighter aircraft?
By analyzing past wars we can see that following requirements have never changed:
- high agility at dogfighting speeds (currently in the medium subsonic to transsonic regime)
- superior situational awareness
- low cost
- high sortie rate
- capability to convert any split-second opportunity to the kill
High agility requires good acceleration, good turn rate, low energy loss and quick transients. Good acceleration and low energy loss require high thrust-to-weight ratio and low drag; good turn rate requires low wing loading, and quick transients require both. Energy state is important for gaining positional advantage and evading missiles.
Superior situational awareness requires not only having good situational awareness yourself, but denying it to the opponent. These requirements can only be met through use of passive sensors.
Low cost and high sortie rate are required for establishing a crucial numerical superiority over the opponent. Both are achieved by making the design as simple as possible.
Capability to convert any split-second opportunity to the kill is crucial in the dogfight, especially if multiple aircraft are involved on both sides, as it allows pilot to deny opponent the opportunity to reverse positional advantage, and allows him to kill more targets in the same timeframe.
With standard loadout of 50% fuel, 2 Sidewinder, 4 AMRAAM, F-22 has wing loading of 313,5 kg/m2 and thrust-to-weight ratio of 1,29. For comparision, with same loadout, Eurofighter Typhoon has wing loading of 284 kg/m2 and thrust-to-weight ratio of 1,28; Dassault Rafale’s values are 276 kg/m2 and 1,22. Su-27s values are 324 kg/m2 and 1,24. Thus, F-22 is inferior in wing loading to both Eurocanards, and has only slightly superior thrust-to-weight ratio compared to Typhoon. It is also only slightly superior to the Su-27 in wing loading, and somewhat more in thrust-to-weight ratio.
As such, it has slightly better turn rates than Su-27, and worse turn rates than Eurocanards. Its large weight will make it more difficult to F-22 to make transit from one turn to another, and its thrust vectoring will, if used, cause major energy losses. More about that later.
As mentioned, superior situational awareness requires not only having good situational awareness yourself, but denying it to the opponent. What this means is that aircraft must be capable of detecting and identifying the enemy completely passively. Currently, IRST and optical sensors are only types of sensors, except for Mk 1 eyeball, to posses such capability. F-22 lacks both, and as such has to either have an uplink to another platform – and such uplink can be detected and jammed – or to carry out both tasks World War II style, with pilot doing detection and identification visually. While F-22 was supposed to have FLIR, it was deleted as the cost-saving measure, and there are no plans to fit it.
Moreover, while some measures have been taken to reduce F-22s thermal signature, no major reduction was (or could have been) achieved, especially from the front. F-22 is also very large, increasing its detectability by the IRST. Thus, F-22 will be easily detected at ranges exceeding 80 kilometers by opponent using QWIP IRST.
Modern heat-seeking missiles also do not have to rely on engine exhaust for locking on the enemy aircraft, but can rather lock on to aircraft itself.
F-22 also isn’t undetectable to the modern radar, despite what some accounts say. While F-22s RCS of 0,0001 and 0,0014 m2 reduces detection range considerably, Typhoon’s radar (which has detection range of 185 km against 1m2 target) can detect it from distance of 18 to 35 kilometers. On the other hand, modern RWRs can detect LPI radars from ranges two or three times greater than such radars can detect target with RCS of 1 m2 at, thus making any use of radar an unwise course of action for F-22 (and any other fighter aircraft).
Low cost and high sortie rate are where F-22 feels least at home. Its flyaway cost is 250 million USD per unit, which is twice (205%) the flyaway cost of the most expensive non-VLO fighter aircraft – Eurofighter Typhoon – and has maintenance downtime of 45 hours per hour of flight, compared to the 8* hours for Rafale, 9* for Typhoon, 10 for Gripen and 19 for the now-ancient F-16 (* have to be confirmed). However, flyaway costs of these fighters, which are, respectively, 33%, 49%, 16% and 11-24% of F-22s, mean that it will be at 10:1 numerical disadvantage compared to Typhoon, and 26:1 disadvantage against Gripen.
F-22 is also incapable of converting split-second opportunities into kills. Reason for that is the fact that it carries all its armaments internally. It takes around half the second for gun doors to open; for missile bay doors it takes at least that much, and possibly more. Worse, Sidewinders it will be using in visual range dogfight are not simply ejected into air, but have to be lowered by mechanism; however, it is possible that such action will be performed while doors open.
Gun itself is the Gattling design. It offers maximum rate of fire of 6 600 rpm (110 rps), compared to 1 700 rpm (28 rps) for BK-27 used in Typhoon and Gripen, and 2 500 rpm (42 rps) for GIAT-30 used in Rafale. However, firing rate alone cannot be used as a measure of effectiveness.
First, Gattling gun takes some time to achieve full firing rate. While M-61A2 takes 0,25 seconds to spin up to its full firing rate, fact that F-22 has to open bay doors to fire increases that time to 0,75 seconds. For revolver cannon, time is 0,05 seconds. Thus, in first second, F-22 will have fired either 13 or 68 rounds (depending on wether gun doors were opened before or after press on trigger); Typhoon would have fired 27 rounds in the same time, and Rafale 40 rounds.
Second, aircraft now are highly resistant. Thus, per-hit damage and weight fired may be more important than number of projectiles. At projectile weight of 100 g for M-61, 260 g for Typhoon and 244 – 270 g for Rafale, F-22 fares worst in per-hit damage category. For total damage, in first second F-22 will have fired 1,3 to 6,8 kg, Typhoon 7 kg and Rafale 9,8 to 10,8 kg of ammunition.
Third, rotation of gun barrels creates vibrations, which means that Gattling design will be less accurate (more spread) than single-barreled designs, and problem will only increase as gun keeps firing.
While F-22 is supposed to kill opponent at BVR, it only carries 6 BVR missiles. With usual 0,08 Pk ratio against same-era threats, it will take two F-22s to kill a single enemy aircraft. That is made even worse by the fact that F-22 not only has to radiate in order to lock on the enemy aircraft, but has to get close enough to penetrate any jamming – distance that was regularly around 1/3 of maximum radar range; in F-22s case, it will be 50 – 80 kilometers against 1 m2 target, such as Typhoon or aircraft with comparable frontal RCS (J-10?) in air-to-air configuration.
F-22s maximum speed of Mach 1,8 – 2,25 and supercruise speed of Mach 1,5 – 1,7 are better than those of most competitors, as Eurofighter Typhoon – the second-fastest supercruiser – can achieve “only” Mach 1,3 when in combat configuration. Thus, F-22 can choose to run if it finds itself outnumbered too much, but if it does choose to attack, it will most likely be forced to engage the opponent in the visual range.
How maneuverable F-22 is
Many say that F-22 is the most maneuverable fighter aircraft by virtue of its thrust vectoring. So, I have decided to take a closer look at various claims about F-22s agility.
F-22 is the most maneuverable fighter aircraft out there
Some claim that F-22 is the most maneuverable and agile fighter aircraft out there, due to the thrust vectoring. That claim, however, is false.
To execute a turn, aircraft requires lift to pull it around the turn. Even civilian jets make sharper turns this way, by banking. Amount of lift can be roughly estimated through wing loading figures, with the caveat that LEX and close-coupled canards do provide the additional lift during high-alpha maneuvers by strengthening vortices created by the wing.
However, while F-22 does have LEX, it is not the only one. Dassault Rafale has both LEX and close-coupled canards, Saab Gripen has close-coupled canards, and Eurofighter Typhoon, while not having either, does have vortex generators at sides of the fuselage.
Thus, actual lift at high AoA could be estimated by comparing length of forward portion of the wing to the aircraft’s weight. This method is only of limited accuracy, however, it is more accurate than standard wing loading figures for high alpha maneuvers, as large portion of wing stalls in such circumstances.
F-22 has combat weight of 24 883 kg and combined wing leading edge length of cca 12,58 meters, which becomes 20,56 meters when LEX and air intake leading surface are taken into account. Thus loading value will be 1210 kg per meter. However, LEX-generated vortices will improve value.
Eurofighter Typhoon, on the other hand, has combat weight of 14 483 kg and combined wing leading edge length of ~18,3 meters along with canards. Thus its loading value will be 791 kg per meter, or slightly higher, but as with F-22, vortices will improve value – this time vortices generated by strakes at sides of Typhoon’s hull. Both Typhoon and F-22 have similar wing sweep and high-lift devices, so actual lifting area per meter will be the same, except maybe for canards.
At lower angles of attack, when entire wing area is used, F-22 will have wing loading of 319 kg/m2 in standard combat configuration, and Eurofighter Typhoon will have wing loading of 283 kg/m2. Thrust loading ratios will be 1,28 for F-22 and 1,25 for Eurofighter Typhoon.
We can thus see that, while F-22 has thrust-to-weight ratio advantage, Eurofighter Typhoon has both lower combat weight and lower wing loading at combat weight, and thus has better maneuvering performance. Dassault Rafale will have similar advantages, although its canards act more like F-22s LEX, which makes it for two aircraft that have better maneuvering performance than F-22.
F-22 is comparable to F-15C (claim made by Pierre Sprey)
Comparing it to the F-15C, we see two things: wing loading and thrust-to-weight ratio that are very similar, with F-15C having slight advantage. While F-22 is larger and heavier aircraft, it is also unstable, improving its response time and removing resustance of aircraft towards the continued turn. It also has LEX, which improves lift at high angle of attack.
While its internal missile carriage adds weight and frontal area, that is cancelled out by reduced drag due to lack of external stores.
F-22 is worse than F-16
F-22 and F-16 have two major things in common: both are relaxed-stability designs and both have LEX. As such, similar wing loading figures and thrust-to-weight ratios will result in similar maneuverability, especially since F-16 was designed to achieve optimum performance when two wingtip AAMs are present.
With 50% fuel, 2 Sidewinder and 4 AMRAAM F-16C has wing loading of 392 kg/m2, thrust-to-weight ratio of 1,186 and weights 10 936 kg. F-22 has wing loading of 313,5 kg/m2, thrust-to-weight ratio of 1,29 and weights 24 579 kg. Thus, while F-22 will suffer maneuverability penalty due to its size and weight, it is unlikely that F-16C will be able to outmaneuver it.
With F-16A it is a different story. With empty weight of 7 076 kg, it has wing loading of 349,5 kg/m2 and thrust-to-weight ratio of 1,29 (figures for 50% fuel and 2 Sidewinder). While its wing loading is higher than F-22s, F-16A is far lighter and smaller, so it is possible that it could be capable of matching the F-22.
To conclude, while Pierre Sprey’s notion that F-22 is no more maneuverable than F-15C is not supportable, those that insist F-22 is the most maneuverable fighter aircraft in the world are equally wrong. Indeed, new fighters such as Eurofighter Typhoon or Dassault Rafale will have better maneuvering performance with virtue of their better aerodynamics and superior attributes (wing loading, thrust-to-weight ratio, etc). F-22 also does not meet force size requirements.