One of the persistent characteristics of the F-22 Raptor fighter programme over its 25-year history has been the propensity of supposed experts to misjudge the plane’s capabilities. Accounts periodically appear about how this or that new radar has ‘unmasked’ the stealthy aircraft—and all of them have been wrong.
Other reports wrongly describe the performance features, mission potential and maintenance costs of on-board equipment. And then there are the stories concerning how soon potential adversaries of the United States such as Russia or China will field their own ‘fifth generation’ fighters.
Such stories are intrinsically speculative, because so much of what the F-22 contains or can do is secret. For instance, sources often refer to the Raptor as a ‘flying antenna,’ without really describing the imposing array of sensors and signal-processing systems incorporated into the design. Similarly, the stealth (or ‘low observable’) features of the airframe are often discussed in public forums, but without any detailed technical treatment of the many technologies that must be integrated in order to render the plane nearly invisible to adversaries.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
As a consequence, because so little of what makes the F-22 unique is in the public record, claims that China may one day soon field an equivalent tactical aircraft shouldn’t be taken seriously. Not only does China lack the necessary experience or expertise in a number of relevant technologies, but it has never demonstrated the system-integration skills required to bring all those technologies together in a functioning airframe. Despite frequent reports in US media about the forays of Chinese cyber-sleuths into US information networks, they’ve never managed to breech the firewalls surrounding highly-classified fighter technology. And, even if they had, the ability of Chinese engineers to utilize the insights obtained would be doubtful.
Obviously, if China were to successfully field a fighter with even a fraction of the F-22’s versatility or survivability, that would present major problems for neighbours such as Taiwan—there’s no air surveillance radar in the world today that can successfully track a fifth-generation fighter.