Inside the news: The F-22 Raptor warplane
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So what does a few hundred million bucks per plane buy you these days? Quite a lot, as it turns out. The F-22 Raptor is what's known as a fifth-generation warplane, as opposed to the fourth-generation jets manufactured from the 1980s through today. (By comparison, the F-14 Tomcat, piloted so expertly by Tom Cruise's "Maverick" in the film Top Gun, was a fourth-generation plane.)
A key component of fifth-generation jets is stealth capability – the F-22, for instance, is touted by Lockheed Martin as being virtually invisible to radar.The plane is powered by two F119-PW-100 turbofan engines, which allow the jet to cruise at speeds greater than Mach 1.5. With the afterburners on, the F-22 is considerably faster than that.
In addition, the plane, which was first tested in the early '90s, is equipped with a powerful avionics system. The pilot is effectively ensconced in what Lockheed Martin calls a "360 degree" electronic environment, allowing him or her to monitor and control the plane's computer systems with a flick of the thumb.
"The F-22 will fundamentally change how America fights; used as a deterrent, it will shorten wars and save lives," reads a brief on the plane posted on the Lockheed Martin site. "The F-22 is faster to the fight, more reliable, one-half the airlift needed and three times more lethal than the F-15," the aging fighter jet the Raptor is designed to replace.
Built for a different world
Several bases across the United States have operational Raptor units, including the 1st Fighter Wing, at Langley Air Force Base, in Virginia. But the F-22 has never been used in combat, leading several critics to deride the plane as a relic of a bygone era.
Specifically, critics worry that the plane, which was designed during the 1980s, when the threat of a major aerial war loomed large, has been outdated by the realities of 21st century warfare. The bulk of today's conflicts unwind on the ground, and often involve counter-insurgency tactics.
There is little use for thousands of high-powered stealth fighter in these situations, the argument goes – and the prospect of a full-out war between two major nations is relatively distant.
Related: A history of American fighter jets.
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