Warplanes: Why F-22s Did Not Come To Libya

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March 31, 2011: Conspicuously absent in the skies over Libya is the new American F-22. Despite modifying the F-22 to operate as a fighter-bomber, the F-22 was uniquely unsuited to operate as part of the international force assigned to stop Libya from attacking its own people. That job requires aircraft that can carry lots of smart bombs. Defeating the Libyan Air Force was not a major chore, and was easily handled by less capable (and cheaper to operate) air superiority fighters. Another problem was communications. The F-22 is not equipped to operate as part of an international aerial armada. The F-22 is a stealthy lone-wolf. Most of the time, the F-22 does not use its radio. To communicate with other F-22s, a special, short-range system is used. The F-22 does not have the full suite of communications equipment most NATO warplanes carry.

The U.S. Air Force has not ignored missions like this for the F-22. Three years ago, the air force reactivated an F-117 "Stealth Fighter" squadron (the 7th Fighter Squadron) and equipped it with F-22 fighters. Because of its extraordinary performance characteristics, and stealthiness, the F-22 was expected to perform bombing missions previously taken care of by the F117. The most dangerous of these involves attacks on enemy air defense systems. Once those defenses are damaged, less stealthy aircraft can go in with less risk of getting shot down. The F-22 is also the most effective air-to-air fighter available. But in Libya, these stealthy bombing missions were carried out by cruise missiles and non-stealthy aircraft, except for a brief appearance by a few B-2s.

The 36 ton F-22 has internal bomb bays, like the F-117, to enhance stealthiness. Thus it can carry two half ton smart bombs, or eight 250 pound SDBs (ground penetrating Small Diameter Bombs) internally, in addition to a pair of air-to-air missiles. However, the F-22 is not yet modified to carry the SDB. The internal bays were originally designed to carry six air-to-air missiles, not bombs. Using the external hard points, which makes the aircraft more visible on radar, an F-22 can carry about four tons of bombs and missiles.

The F-22 has the most advanced radar and electronic warfare gear of any jet fighter. When you include the cost of research and development, each F-22 ends up costing nearly $400 million. But for pilots in certain types of combat, it's money well spent. But not for what was needed over Libya, where most non-stealthy fighters can carry four or more tons of bombs and missiles.

The F-117 was based on 1970s technology and entered service in 1983. It was actually a 24 ton light bomber. It had two internal bomb bays, and typically carried two laser guided bombs. The F-117 was not a jet fighter, and was not as stealthy as the F-22. Only 59 were built and, taking inflation into account, cost about as much as a F-22. The last F-117s were retired earlier this year. Because of the high cost, only 187 F-22s were built, and the air force wants to preserve them for crucial air superiority and bombing situations.

 


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