Is the F-22 truly as dominant as people believe?
Despite the F-22 Raptor’s reputation as the world’s most capable air superiority fighter, the stealth jet has lost a number of notional dogfights over the years to older and less advanced platforms like the F-16 and even the Navy’s electronic-warfare specialist, the EA-18G Growler. But few exercises have done more damage to the mighty Raptor’s reputation than a series of training dogfights with German Eurofighter Typhoons that took place just about a decade ago.
These losses may have been notional, but some people clearly took them seriously. So seriously, in fact, that German Eurofighters were spotted wearing F-22 kill markings on their fuselages after telling the press that they had “Raptor salad for lunch.”
With the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance fighter cruising toward service in the coming decade, it now seems likely that the mighty Raptor will retire without ever firing a shot at another aircraft in anger, making these simulated combat exercises and a handful of exciting intercepts the extent of the Raptor’s air-to-air legacy.
So what is that legacy exactly? Is the F-22 truly as dominant as people believe? Or is this fighter’s biggest advantage not stealth… but hype?
Arguments about the F-22 and Eurofighter Typhoon largely stem from German Eurofighters’ participation in the Air Force’s large-scale Red Flag air combat exercises over Alaska in 2012.
Red Flag is an advanced aerial combat training course that pits a wide variety of aircraft, often from multiple nations, against large-scale and realistic threats meant to simulate a real near-peer fight.
That year, Germany sent 150 Airmen and eight Eurofighter Typhoons from JG 74, or the Luftwaffe’s 74th Tactical Air Force Wing, to Eielson AFB in Alaska to participate in a wide variety of missions over two weeks. Included among them was a series of close-range Basic Fighter Maneuver (BFM) drills with America’s Raptors. BFM, of course, is fighter-pilot parlance for dog fights.
After the exercises were over, Germany’s Eurofighter pilots arrived at 2012’s Farnborough International Air Show, where they were quick to discuss their victories over the F-22. According to David Cenciotti’s coverage for The Aviationist, Germany’s Typhoon pilots explained that when the F-22 was flying with external fuel tanks attached and fighting within-visual range, Typhoons were often able to outclass the Raptor.
Where it all started…
How does the Eurofighter Typhoon compare to the F-22 Raptor?
Despite their generational differences, the F-22 Raptor and Eurofighter Typhoon actually have a number of things in common. They were both originally designed to serve as air superiority fighters born out of the Cold War, with the Typhoon first taking to the skies in 1994 and the F-22 following behind in 1997. Likewise, both fighters ultimately entered service in the early-to-mid 2000s, with the Typhoon entering active duty in 2003 and the Raptor, once again, following behind in 2005.
But despite these aircraft being designed at around the same time to serve in similar capacities, they differ dramatically in how they go about accomplishing their mission.
The F-22 Raptor was always meant to be a revolution in airpower, leaning heavily into America’s groundbreaking stealth technology to produce what was—and remains—the stealthiest operational fighter on the face of the planet. But it’s not just stealth that makes the Raptor a capable platform. It also boasts a high degree of sensor fusion and advanced avionics that allow for an extreme degree of situational awareness while reducing cognitive load for the pilot. In other words, the F-22’s onboard computers allow the pilot to devote more attention to the fight and less to operating the aircraft.
“When you’re flying the Raptor, you’re not thinking about flying the Raptor,” explained F-22 pilot Randy Gordon in a lecture he gave at MIT, “You’re thinking about employing the Raptor. Flying is secondary.”
But the F-22 isn’t all about stealth and sensor fusion. It also incorporates elements of what might be considered 4th-generation dogfighting design: like thrust vector control — or the ability to orient its jet nozzles independent of the airframe to perform incredibly aerobatic maneuvers, a high thrust-to-weight ratio, and an M61A2 20mm Gatling gun that can fire its onboard 480 rounds at a blistering rate of 6,000 per minute.
“Raptor has vector thrust: Typhoon doesn’t,” RAF Typhoon pilot and squadron commander Rich Wells told Breaking Defense in 2013. “What the aircraft can do, it’s incredible. The Typhoon just doesn’t do that.”
And while it usually carries a total of eight weapons internally (six AMRAAMs and two AIM-9 Sidewinders), it can be fitted with four external pylon stations for additional munitions when it’s tired of speaking softly and decides to become its own big stick.
As a result, the F-22 bridges two combat philosophies — offering such a high degree of stealth and situational awareness that it can win most fights before the opponent even knows that it’s there, alongside a highly respectable slew of traditional dogfighting traits that allow it to stand and swing with the most dynamic hotrod dogfighters of the previous generation.
The Eurofighter Typhoon, on the other hand, wasn’t aiming to reinvent the existing air superiority model, so much as to perfect it as it was. Its delta-wing design, a shape nearly adopted by the F-22’s defunct bomber sibling, offers a high degree of subsonic maneuverability alongside increased lift and range. The design, as well as the materials that make up the Typhoon, all lend it a higher degree of stealth than you might find in most comparably advanced 4th-generation fighters.
In fact, according to Eurofighter promotional materials:
The aircraft is built with advanced composite materials to deliver a low radar profile and strong airframe. Only 15% of the aircraft’s surface is metal, delivering stealth operation and protection from radar-based systems
Like many other fighters, including the F-22, the Typhoon also leverages electronic warfare capabilities to obscure its radar return. And unlike the maintenance-heavy Raptor, the Typhoon was designed to be easy to maintain, assembled out of 15 interchangeable modules to minimize repair time. When up close and personal, the Typhoon’s Mauser BK27mm gun fires at either 1,000 or 1,700 rounds per minute, with 150 rounds carried onboard.
Since entering service, the Typhoon has matured into an extremely capable multi-role platform, leaving its air superiority roots behind to become one of the most well-rounded fighters in service today, leveraging its 13 hard points for a wide variety of mission sets.
“The Eurofighter is certainly, as far as smoothness of controls and the ability to pull (and sustain high G forces), very impressive,” explained Gen. John P. Jumper, former Air Force Chief of Staff and among the few pilots to have seat time in both the Raptor and Typhoon. “That is what it was designed to do, especially the version I flew, with the avionics, the color moving map displays, etc. — all absolutely top notch. The maneuverability of the airplane in close-in combat was also very impressive.”
The Typhoons pair of Eurojet EJ200 afterburning turbofan engines aren’t quite as powerful as the Raptor’s, propelling the Eurofighter to a top speed of Mach 2, vice the Raptors 2.25 — but top speed doesn’t mean much in a fight, and the Eurofighter’s comparatively lower weight allows for a better thrust-to-weight ratio for the Typhoon (in its interceptor configuration) than a similarly equipped Raptor.
F-22 vs. Eurofighter Typhoon: What do we know about the exercises?
Although many details remain murky, there are some things we know for sure about these 2012 dogfight exercises. Based on pilot statements, we know that at least some (if not all) of them were one-on-one engagements. Most importantly, they occurred within visual range with a number of reports stating that the Raptor was carrying stealth (and aerobatics) hindering external fuel tanks.
This distinction is essential because it means the fighting began under a forced pretense that effectively neutered the Raptor’s greatest strength: its ability to use stealth and situational awareness to dictate how an engagement begins and, if the reports of fuel tanks are true, its aerobatic maneuverability.
In real life, F-22 pilots would almost certainly be aware of the Typhoon before the Typhoon was aware of it, allowing the Raptor to put itself into an advantageous position before the fighting began (or simply taking out the Typhoon from beyond visual range). And it practically goes without saying that no pilot would dogfight for their lives with external fuel tanks still hanging from their wings.
This type of exercise is common in military training, however, and could be compared to offensive and defensive positions in scholastic wrestling. A neutral start in wrestling begins with both athletes on their feet — this would be like two fighters flying into an exercise in the same way they might in real life.
Starting in a defensive (or disadvantaged) position, on the other hand, is when one wrestler begins the period on their hands and knees, with their opponent next to them on one knee with an arm over their back (the advantage). In the case of these specific exercises, the F-22 played the role of the disadvantaged wrestler starting from its knees — playing to the Eurofighter’s strengths, rather than its own.
But like in wrestling, we should note that starting in a defensive or disadvantaged position isn’t an excuse for losing. It’s just part of the game.
Some allowances were also made for the Eurofighter before the fighting began. While the F-22 was carrying external fuel tanks that, to some extent, compromise both its aerobatic and stealth performance, the Eurofighter Typhoon that participated in one-on-one dogfights against the Raptor was allowed to fly not only without fuel tanks, but without any external munitions at all. This not only improved the Typhoon’s maneuverability, but it also couldn’t happen in a real fight lest the Eurofighter be left with nothing but its guns.
“There were two mornings where we flew against them 1v1. We pulled off all the tanks to get the most alpha [angle of attack]; the Eurofighter really is an animal with no tanks,” Germany’s Maj. Marc Gruene, one of the pilots that participated in the drills, explained.
How many of each fighter participated in these drills, what the rules of engagement were, and what the final kill ratios for each fighter were are all details that neither nation has disclosed, though there have been a number of claims made online. While these claims haven’t been confirmed, they all report more wins for the F-22 than the Eurofighter, but F-22s clearly took home some losses as well.
Today’s Eurofighter Typhoons come equipped with both a helmet-mounted targeting system to engage enemy fighters off-boresight (without aiming the nose of the aircraft at them), as well as the PIRATE infrared search and track (IRST) system that’s potentially capable of spotting stealth fighters at distances as great as 30 miles out. This would have been a significant advantage over the F-22 — which carries neither capability to date — but at the time of these dogfight exercises, these systems were still being rolled out to Germany’s Air Force, and the Typhoons that participated in the drills did not have them.
What happened when the F-22 and Eurofighter squared off?
According to the German pilots, once the fighting began, the F-22’s thrust-vector control (TVC) actually hindered the Raptor, rather than helping it when sparring in close quarters with the Typhoon.
“The key is to get as close as possible to the F-22 and stay there. They didn’t expect us to turn so aggressively,” Gruene told Combat Aircraft magazine back in 2012. “As soon as you get to the merge… the Typhoon doesn’t necessarily have to fear the F-22.”
The Merge, for clarification’s sake, isn’t just the name of a great aviation newsletter. It’s also what fighter pilots call it when two fighters meet head-on in a close-quarters pass.
TVC does allow a fighter to perform extreme maneuvers, but they come at a high cost. In a dogfight, airspeed is life, and the exotic displays TVC allows all scrub a great deal of it. When the F-22 uses its thrust-vectoring nozzles to turn on a dime, the jet is vulnerable until it can regain airspeed. If it doesn’t manage to score a kill immediately after performing such a maneuver, the Raptor becomes easy prey until its powerful pair of F-119-PW-100 turbofan engines can get all 70,000 pounds of fighter moving again.
Here’s how it was explained by an unnamed Eurofighter test pilot to Cenciotti:
If you are ‘defensive’ and your aircraft has Thrust Vectoring, you can possibly outturn your enemy, but that most likely won’t prove to be a great idea: an energy fighter like the Typhoon will conveniently ‘use the vertical’ to retain energy and aggressively reposition for a missile or gun shot. Also the subsequent acceleration will be extremely time (and fuel) consuming, giving your opponent the opportunity to tail chase you forever, exploiting all its short range weapon array.
But even on the offensive, using TVC to quickly orient the nose of your fighter toward the enemy isn’t always a good idea either. Because aggressive maneuvers strip the fighter of energy, you may score a kill against the opponent in front of you, but you’re left vulnerable to any others nearby. This inherent issue with thrust vectoring combat tactics is really why no other American fighters are equipped with it, and in fact, Raptor pilots themselves will tell you that the real benefit of TVC in their aircraft is maintaining a degree of maneuverability while flying at a high angle of attack when control surfaces aren’t as effective, rather than performing air show maneuvers in a dogfight.
We know for sure that at least some (likely two) Eurofighters actually scored notional kills against their F-22 opponents in these drills. That story was quickly picked up by news outlets around the world, eager for a story about America’s expensive Raptor failing to live up to expectations.
What we don’t know, however, is how many kills Raptors scored against Typhoons, though it seems clear from official statements that the number was definitely not zero. In other words, the story wasn’t that Raptors consistently lost to Eurofighters, but rather, that sometimes they did.
So what does that mean, exactly?
When aviation buffs start squaring off in the comments sections below articles and videos about their favorite (or least favorite) fighter platforms, it usually doesn’t take long for the discourse to stop sounding like a well-informed debate and start sounding like 3rd graders arguing about whose dad can beat up who’s. The complex context of air combat gives way to oversimplification and hyperbole until everything devolves into ad hominem attacks and seemingly made-up and uncitable statistics.
What can I say — Airplane folks go hard.
There are, however, reasonable arguments to be made from both sides of this debate — which I’ll try to capture below:
The Raptor Fan Argument
Those in the Raptor camp will contend that exercises like these, with their contrived circumstances and intentionally one-sided rules of engagement may be good for training, but they’re a poor measure of a fighter’s actual performance in the absence of broader context. The very nature of these exercises set out to put the Raptor at a disadvantage, eliminating the platform’s greatest strengths — its stealth and beyond-visual range capabilities, in favor of an old-fashioned shoot-out the likes of which haven’t been seen at scale since the Vietnam War. According to media reports, the F-22 “decimated” the Typhoon when able to engage from beyond visual range because it didn’t have to fly with one wing tied behind its back.
In a real fight, the F-22 would likely be aware of the Typhoon’s presence well before the Typhoon was aware of it, and even if the Eurofighter and pilot proved too quick on the stick to be taken out with an AMRAAM at long distance, the Raptor could use its superior situational awareness and low observability to close in on its European foe from an advantageous position, greatly improving its chances of success.
And perhaps most importantly of all, Raptor fans will argue that Germany was bragging about scoring a few kills against the Raptor… but they never once claimed that the Eurofighter won more sparring matches than the Raptor did. They simply claimed that it won some, and that was with a number of distinct advantages handed to them.
The fact of the matter is, the headline-grabbing story wasn’t about Eurofighters dominating the F-22… It was about two of them managing to score wins at all against an aircraft many think of as invincible.
The Typhoon Fan Argument
Those in the Eurofighter Typhoon’s camp, on the other hand, will argue that these exercises, like real combat, aren’t about being fair. The Eurofighter’s ability to stand and scrap with the Raptor in close quarters is proof positive that the Typhoon is capable of competing with the most advanced (and expensive) fighters on the planet when it comes to close-quarters air combat.
And that, combined with its improved avionics and beyond-visual range capabilities that have manifested since that interaction, make the Eurofighter Typhoon one of the best pound-for-pound fighters anywhere on the planet.
Its foreign-sales price is, after all, right around $124 million — which is an incredible bargain compared to the estimated $400 million or so per Raptor, at least, when you include its research and development costs in each F-22’s price tag.
Even if Raptors did score more kills against Typhoons than the Germans did against Raptors as a number of sources have reported, the fact that the 4th generation Eurofighter was a genuine threat to the F-22 at all proves that its supremacy isn’t as assured as so many Raptor fanboys like to believe.
Both of these arguments are right. The F-22 Raptor isn’t considered the most dominant air superiority fighter in the sky because it can’t lose. That’s not how combat works — heck, it’s not how any kind of fighting works. No matter how capable, no matter how advanced, no matter how well trained, anyone can find themselves knee-deep in a disadvantage they can’t overcome.
Eric Wicklund, a former Operations Specialist in the U.S. Navy, made this point rather eloquently earlier this year:
World War 2 ace, Erich Hartmann is the highest scoring ace, ever, with 352 kills. That doesn’t mean he never lost. He got shot down 16 times! He’s still the greatest ace, because he won much more often than he lost.
The F-22’s advanced avionics, high degree of maneuverability, and extremely low observability all make it an incredibly capable platform, but nothing makes a fighter invincible. If you stack the deck against anything, it’ll find its limits — and it’s important to note that finding those limits, of both the pilot and the platform, is the real reason these exercises exist.
Red Flag isn’t about winning internet dog fights, it’s about going on to win real ones. Taking home a few W’s in a series of staged exercises doesn’t mean nothing, but it doesn’t mean everything either.
The truth is, the Eurofighter Typhoon is an incredibly capable 4th generation fighter, but when you pit it against a 5th generation fighter, that stealthy opponent — be it F-22, F-35, or maybe even J-20 — is likely going to win most engagements in a relatively boring (and rather sneaky) way.
But if these stealth jets happen to find themselves within gun’s reach of the Eurofighter, the victor isn’t as easy to divine. And that’s an important lesson for both 4th and 5th generation pilots to take away from these exercises.
This assertion is substantiated in numbers we can confirm — in its earliest appearances at Red Flag back in 2006 and 2007, F-22s racked up 144 and 241 wins respectively, but lost a handful of jets as well to lowly 4th generation fighters like the F-16C — which was the first platform ever to down an F-22. in a mock dogfight. In fact, in the F-22’s first air-to-air outing (without being limited to within visual range), it took out eight F-15s without them ever managing to paint it with a target.
But… if you can get in close with the F-22 and eliminate its technological advantages, the Raptor is just another aircraft in a fight for its life.
“The Raptor’s unique capabilities are overwhelming, but as soon as you get to the merge, which is [admittedly] only a very small spectrum of air combat, the Typhoon doesn’t necessarily have to fear the F-22 in all aspects. We gain energy better than the F-22 when we are slow, for example,” Fighter Wing 74 commander Col. Andreas Pfeiffer said of the mock engagements.
This all reminds me of something an American intelligence contractor told me years ago about U.S. special operations units. They’re the most elite operators in the world with the best training, the best equipment, and the best support… but just about every Navy SEAL, Delta operator or Army Ranger who’s been killed in combat over the past two decades wasn’t taken down by a similarly elite group of ISIS or Al-Qaeda commandos. More often than not, it’s a poorly trained young man with a poorly maintained AK-47, no body armor, and some luck on his side.
You can give your warfighters all the advantages in the world, but nobody knows how a fight will play out until it does. In fact, according to Air Force Col. Thomas Bergeson, in Red Flag exercises, “you have a great day if you lose only 10 percent of your forces.” And he’s not alone.
“If you see numbers where you never have a loss, I don’t think you’re training to your full ability,” explained Lt. Col. Wade Tolliver, 27th FS commander, back in 2007. “If you don’t, at some point, have that simulated loss, we’re not going to push ourselves to be as capable as we are.”
That’s the unfortunate reality of defense technology analysis. The real answer is rarely pithy, rarely simple, and rarely can stand on its own without some broader context. The internet prefers that we speak in concise absolutes, but the only incisive answer you can really give when asked which out of two contemporary platforms is best is… it depends.
It depends on the mission, the circumstances, the rules of engagement, the pilots, the mission planning, the training, the budget, the over-arching combat doctrine, and if any of the pilots had two extra cups of coffee this morning and is distracted by the pressing need to find a toilet.
“No matter how magical the F-22, any pilot can make a mistake, explained Air Force Lt. Col. Dirk Smith in 2007. “The beauty of Red Flag is that we were able to go out and practice our tactics in a challenging scenario, make a mistake, learn a lesson, and be that much better prepared for actual combat.”
So what’s the verdict between the F-22 Raptor and Eurofighter Typhoon?
Can the Eurofighter Typhoon beat the F-22 Raptor in a dogfight? The answer is an unequivocal yes. It’s a very capable jet and, under the right set of rare and unusual circumstances, just about anything could beat the F-22. In fact, if you were really impressed by the F-22 kill markings on those Typhoons, you should know that they’ve been applied to other aircraft after notional victories… including at least one A-10 Warthog (alongside another mark for an F-16 kill).
But are F-22 pilots losing sleep over this? The answer there is no.
“When the sensors work and each plane talks to each other, the Raptor is nearly untouchable when things are right,” F-22 pilot Mike ‘Dozer’ Shower said in Bertie Simmonds’ book, “F-15 Eagle.”
“The F-22 versus a 4th-generation fighter is like having two football teams against each other and one of them [the F-22] is invisible!”
People don’t call the F-22 Raptor the reigning king of the skies because it never loses. Having the F-22 Raptor on your wing in the sky, like Micheal Jordan on the basketball court or Chesty Puller on the battlefield, isn’t a guarantee of victory. They all have a few L’s on their resumes.
Nobody wins all the time. Not even the mighty Raptor.
But if you want to get a fight going in the comments anyway… I still think my dad could have beaten up yours.