What if the F-22 Raptor Defended U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers?

Warrior Maven

Video: Air Force Upgrades Air-to-Air Weapons to Respond to New Threats

by Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) Should an entire U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Group finds itself in a great power war on the open ocean, it seems possible that surface ships might struggle to defend against attacks from enemy fifth-generation stealth fighters. Unless, that is, large numbers of carrier-launched F-35Cs were operational and able to engage in air-to-air combat against approaching enemy aircraft. 

But how about F-22 stealth fighter jets? During the U.S. Navy’s Valiant Shield exercise in the Pacific in September, the service began to explore the idea of having F-22 Raptors defend surface ships such as destroyers, amphibious assault ships and carriers. 

Perhaps the stealth fighter, believed by many to be the most dominant and advanced air-superiority platform in existence, could defend carriers? Why not? 

Speaking of carriers, Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, makes the point that damage to surface ships such as carriers in open-ocean warfare can bring catastrophic effects. 

“You can’t sink land-bases. They can be rapidly reconstituted. Carriers present a huge footprint that is potentially more vulnerable...but is that the best use of an F-22?” Deptula said. 

Given that the F-22 program was, in the minds of many, prematurely truncated years ago, there may not be sufficient numbers of available F-22s for a mission of this kind. More importantly, would they have the reach and staying power to preserve vulnerable air space above surface ships? It seems availability, and the number of nearby F-35Cs, might also be pertinent factors. 

For the first time, the joint Valiant Shield exercise included an Army unit focused on Multi-Domain Operations and the event tested air-ground-sea networking technologies merging Navy ships, Poseidon spy planes and even mine warfare capable B-52s to conduct integrated operations. 

Broadly speaking, a Navy report referred to the mission scope as “maritime security operations, anti-submarine and air-defense exercises, amphibious operations, and other elements of complex warfighting.” 

Carrier strike groups are of course known for their many defenses such as air-and-missile defense interceptors, long-range guns and close-in-defenses such as Phalanx guns or anti-torpedo technologies. Could ship self-defense systems, which increasingly include weapons such as lasers and electronic warfare systems, be better served by having F-22s operate overhead? 

Such a prospect presents interesting options, should an F-22 be able to reach the right ranges and be sufficient to conduct missions overhead. Refueling an F-22 with the Navy’s emerging MQ-25 Stingray carrier-launched drone refueler, however, might extend dwell time and mission scope in a significant fashion. Existing ship defenses may be well equipped to defend against anti-ship missiles, enemy boats and even ballistic missiles, yet it does seem apparent that they could be vulnerable to fifth-generation enemy aircraft. Clearly these threat circumstances are why the Pentagon developed the F-35, yet they also raise the question as to whether an air-to-air dominant fighter like an F-22 might also be well suited to preserve air security in ocean warfare. 

Certainly the advent of Russian and Chinese fifth-generation stealth aircraft changed the threat equation in a substantial way, regarding the kinds of attacks possibly faced by surface ships. China, for instance, is fast-tracking a carrier-launched variant of its J-31 to rival the F-35B. 

“F-18s are not going to bring much utility in a high-end fight,” Deptula said. 

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest*. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.*

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

Utter rubbish.

The reason why the F-22 will not work in this enviroment is because you are talking about a pair of 1.09PPH F119 engnes on the Raptor compared to .88PPH on the single F135 equipped Lightning. With ~20,000lbs of JP onboard, this will translate to a 250nm FORCAP with an hour/hour twenty and such is just not a practical solution for naval ops which have much larger reserve demands.

The MQ-25 Stingray is not going to be boom equipped, the prong is simply too heavy. Nor is an F-22 going to be Hermaphrodite MLU'd like some kind of F-105, just to help the Navy. Nobody wants a 3ft wide basket bouncing off the RAM treated nose of a Gen-2 stealth fighter. Heck, we can barely keep the coatings functional in a desert environment as is.

Speaking of which, if you are flying jets from a theater deployment package 'Six Pack', once every 5-7 days, you are not protecting anybody.

The F-22 also lacks the broadband, high datarate, targeting quality, datalinks to support the likes of NIFC-CA as it only (recently) added LDRT LINK-16. The trick the F-35 performed with providing midcourse handoff to an SM-6 against an approaching threat is likely beyond it.

'Open Ocean' tends to refer to Blue Water ops which BEGIN anywhere from 250-500nm off nearest coast, neither of which would be safe for a CSG as the Chinese shift to HALE UAS with basin-wide optics and SAR and probably ROTHR by no later than 2030. Nevermind overhead.

Take this out to 1,100nm for the DF-21 and 2,300nm for the DF-26 and you start to see a condition by which the only way the Raptor can provide air cover to anyone is if the Carrier is anchored off Guam (1,500nm from Taipei, 1,700nm from Pyongyang...).

And now you've got to question how the USN is getting to the target more than once per day as much as what the USAF thinks it can do to 'protect' a big deck with all of six missiles against a dedicated (20+) threat VLO air attack with standoff missiles.

The answer is: Not Much.

Now, here is an alternative to how you might see this thing go down: Either install a large scale array, tropobounce, antenna on a range tracking ship as a single unit integrated (everything needed to run the radar is in the stack) crane drop on one of the big elevated flat-decks.

Or do something similar by adapting the TPY-2 technology base as a RoRo on a smaller ship or island installation.

Tropobounce lets you see the top of the airframe against a Sea State STAP dynamic clutter map and track the shadow over the water.

The F-22 vectors in at ~800 knots (the thing which the F-35C can't and never will do) and lights off the APG-77 from an advantaged aspect and relatively close range. This is more of a Yamamoto styled op than an AAW FADF mission set but it will let you proactively engage the threat, farther out from the carrier, because you are in fact, NOT, wedded to the hip but rather dragging your Pegasus behind you.

In theory, you can bring this close enough, inshore, to hit transiting stealth jets while they are still slow and possibly high signature (droppable non-stealth EFT pylons).

Will it work, ad hoc? Possibly. Clunky as hell but it will provide some numbers the USN can use to push their NGAD F/A-XX which is certain to be their real goal.

I would argue that, provided you are indeed 'Open Ocean' and have the latest tapes on the APG-79, an F/A-18E/F, with EFE engines, CFT and a centerline pod carrying X4 VLRAAM (Mach 5, airbreathing, 200nm) could manage the same mission set. But it would have to be a headon shot as, even with the lower drag of the CFT compared to wing tanks and no-pylon AAM carriage on the centerline, you would you probably be doing 600-650 knots, tops, and a J-20 with working WS-15 that has AL-41 technology inserts integrated, can likely beat that.

The F-22 is a Special Mission Asset. We never purchased enough of them for it to be otherwise. Pretending that you are going to task it to boring skyholes, awaiting the convenience of the PLAAF or any other Tier 1 threat which might actually have the juice to Deep Blue ISR run a kill chain on a Carrier, illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how that platform is intended to be employed.