Authored By Dan Alex (Updated: 3/20/2016):
Coupled with the upcoming Lockheed F-35 Lightning II multirole aircraft, the USAF will field a potent "one-two" punch for generations to come. As the world's only operational "Fifth Generation" fighter platform, the F-22s only true "enemy" at this time appears to be the growing pains involved with her complex and highly technical internal systems. Both Russia and China are currently development 5th Generation Fighters all their own - challenging the F-22's claim to the next-gen skies.
The Reagan-Era ATF Program
Origins of the F-22 lay in the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) initiative put forth by the USAF in an effort to shore up an aging frontline of Cold War-era fighter platforms - particularly the venerable F-15 Eagle series. The F-15 Eagle itself was born in the thick of the Cold War years and was accepted into service in 1976. She was as a large fighter platform meant for true air superiority over Soviet-sponsored fighters of the time, offering a potent payload along with excellent top-flight speed and proved an outright success within time - one of the classic American fighters of all time. The airframe was eventually adapted into a dual-role air-superiority / ground strike version in the F-15E "Strike Eagle" offering and was even more recently converted to a "semi-stealth" end-product through the proposed F-15SE "Silent Eagle" initiative. By the time of the ATF program, the F-15 was really only just beginning to gain a foothold in the USAF inventory. However, technological progression the world over would eventually catch up to the fabled F-15 lineage and its large interceptor concept so, thusly, a new thoroughbred was on order. The ATF program began in 1981 and the USAF ultimately envisioned some 750 ATF aircraft to fill its next-generation stable. Several developmental platforms serving throughout the latter part of the 1970s and into the 1980s would go on to deliver the valuable data that would influence the future of American flight.
The Revised USAF Requirement
By June of 1981, formal specifications had been ironed out for the successor to the F-15. The USAF required a new-generation aircraft capable of exceeding the speed of sound without the need for thirsty afterburning technology while also featuring an operational range of approximately 800 miles. The new fighter platform would also have to exhibit unparalleled performance (in excess of Mach 1.5) for the air-to-air role through superior use of burgeoning technologies that included vectoring thrust and stealth, the latter through various materials and skilful use of design to make for a relatively invisible enemy. In July of 1986, the Demonstration and Validation Phase began and ultimately led to a formal "request for proposal" being sent out with Lockheed and Northrop headlining the response.
The YF-22 Versus the YF-23
The storied aviation firms of Lockheed and Northrop went head-to-head in the ensuing ATF competition. The Lockheed submission was to be designated as the "YF-22" whilst the Northrop submission became the "YF-23". Along with the new airframe designs, each aircraft was to also trial a pair of new powerplants in each afforded prototype bringing both General Electric and Pratt & Whitney into the fold. Like the airframe counterparts, the engines too were labeled in developmental form as the "YF119" (Pratt & Whitney) and "YF120" (General Electric). The USAF requested that each concern produce two prototypes mounting examples of each engine for review. The program would be a huge stage for all those involved and the potentially lucrative defense contract to follow would affect smaller contributors in multiple states across the country.
Such a stage required more resources than those military-minded aircraft developments in years past and now saw former competitors team up to promote a viable end-product. Lockheed joined forces with Boeing and General Dynamics while Northrop stood with McDonnell Douglas. The program was extended by the period of six months in 1987 for a redesign of the YF-22 to fall under the requisite weight limitations. The four prototypes were completed and made ready for evaluations beginning in 1990. The Northrop / McDonnell Douglas development earned its first flight on August 27th, 1990. The Lockheed prototype - N22YF - was unveiled at the Lockheed Palmdale plant in California on August 29th and took to the air for the first time on September 29th, 1990. For the Lockheed example, Boeing was responsible for the wings and rear fuselage assemblies while Lockheed herself concentrated on the cockpit and forward nose assembly and General Dynamics handled the central fuselage and tail. A second prototype, the N22XF, this fielded with the other engine under consideration and was flown on October 30th, 1990. Northrop eventually tied their YF-23 to the "Black Widow II" nickname in homage to their twin-engine, piston-powered P-61 "Black Widow" nightfighter of World War 2 fame. Similarly, the Lockheed team bestowed the nickname of "Lightning II" to their YF-22 in tribute to their war-winning, twin-engine, twin-boom fighter, the P-38 "Lightning" - the "Fork-Tailed Devil".
Both aircraft exhibited quite different approaches to their designs. The YF-22 was of sharp angles with a rear-set main wing assembly and outward canted vertical tail fins - looking very different from the initial published artist's impression. The cockpit sat behind a pointed nose cone which was to house the final radar array. The intakes were inward canted at their bottom edges and the overall design was meant to counter the signature presence of the airframe against tracking enemy radar installations. As such, the body was coated in radar-absorbing materials and various angled planes. The YF-22 undoubtedly borrowed much of the lessons learned in the development of the F-117 "Nighthawk" stealth fighter achieved decades prior.
On the other hand, the YF-23 followed a more unconventional overall shape with its large-area wings promoting a diamond-type shape when viewing the aircraft from the overhead profile. The design was relatively squat in her forward profile and finely contoured throughout with smooth, sloping faces. There were no horizontal tail fins as in the YF-22 design but instead extremely outward canted vertical tail planes doubling as both rudders and elevators. Like the YF-22 for Lockheed, the YF-23 for Northrop no doubt pulled from experience garnered in their pursuit of the B-2 "Spirit" stealth bomber design.
A period of intense evaluations (and most likely heavy political lobbying in the background) followed in what turned out to be a historic victory for the Lockheed concern. Despite the more powerful YF-23 showing by Northrop, the YF-22 was selected as the competition's winner due to its inherent agility in the fighter role. The USAF also liked what it saw in the reliable and overly promising Pratt & Whitney YF119 engines when coupled to the YF-22 prototype, earning Pratt & Whitney the nod to win the equally-lucrative engine contract. Formal long-term development on the winning YF-22 design began in April of 1991.
Too Powerful for its Own Good?
From the outset, the F-22 series was designed to be the most technologically advanced airborne warfighter anywhere in the world. The F-22 was conceived to handle any current enemy threats in the skies as well as counter any "on-the-horizon" threats thought to be in development from competing nations. As such, her advances gave birth to the new classification of "Fifth Generation" fighter, placing her leaps ahead of the global competition and, in some ways, making all previous generation fighters something of obsolete types. However, many perceive the sheer revolutionary standards brought about by the F-22 as an end-product that was built for a threat that did not exist - in essence, an expensive "overkill" endeavor that was not needed for the time. Regardless, there was no arguing that the F-22 was revolutionary from the start - bringing with it an all-new age of military-minded aviation, perhaps the greatest advancement since the jet engine itself.
To demonstrate the F-22s potency and potential, a controlled exercise was published in which a pair of Raptors were pitted against four F-15 Eagles. By the end of the test, all four of the Eagles had been targeted and "killed" with no loss to the pair of F-22s. After the exercise, the Eagle pilots were noted as saying that the F-22 had not even shown up on their radars during the entire foray, never presenting itself as a target to the awaiting flight of four Eagles - this, in some ways a promising testament to the next-generation capabilities of such stealth-based aircraft on the horizon.