On February 4 2023 the F-22 Raptor fifth generation fighter gained its first ever air to air kill, after one of the aircraft was deployed by the U.S. Air Force from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to shoot down a Chinese meteorological balloon over the Atlantic Ocean. The balloon was initially reported claimed by a number of Western media outlets to have been a possible Chinese intelligence gathering asset spying on the United States, although this was widely questioned by experts on the basis that such a means of surveillance would not only be far too conspicuous, but was also extremely outdated. As the state media outlet China Daily responded to such allegations: “To spy on the U.S. with a balloon, one must both fall far behind to use a 1940s technology and be advanced enough to control its flight across the ocean. Those fabricating the lie are only exposing their ignorance.” The balloon allegedly entered U.S. airspace after loosing course due to strong winds, with another similar lost balloon flying near South America. The incident was notable since the balloon’s extreme altitude, very small size and lack of a meaningful radar signature made it a challenge to shoot down, with heat seeking missiles targeting its side illuminated by the sun seen as the most effective means of doing so. The AIM-9X Sidewinder, a modernised derivative of the AIM-9 first deployed in 1953, serves as the F-22’s primary short ranged armament, and was used in the attack. The AIM-9X’s cost, at close to $400,000, drew some public criticism to the operation after it emerged that the balloon itself cost a very small fraction of that amount.
The F-22 first joined the U.S. Air Force in December 2005, but saw a very short production run which was cut short in 2011 due to multiple issues the service faced with the aircraft. These ranged from its much poorer range and higher maintenance needs than its predecessor the F-15, to problematic computer architecture and early poisonous effects on pilots’ lungs, as well as its extreme operational costs which made a large fleet unaffordable. The result was a move to begin retiring the airframes just a fraction of their way through their service lives from later in 2023. This was first indicated in May 2021 when Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Brown Jr. announced that the fighter would not be part of the service’s future. The Raptor’s lack of beyond visual range air to ground capabilities has seriously limited the missions on which it can be deployed, unlike the newer F-15EX and F-35, which combined with a scarcity of air to air missions since 2005 has made the balloon shootdown the very first time an F-22 fires a missile in combat. The incident will likely be the first and last time F-22s use their missiles before the fleet begins to downsized later in the year.
The F-22 was the world’s first fifth generation fighter, and for years had no analogues abroad due to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and subsequent collapse of its competing MiG 1.42 stealth fighter program. The fighter’s relevance has nevertheless been called to question due not only to its perceived lack of cost effectiveness in terms of operational expenses, but also to the fact that the new F-35 and the modernised F-15EX boast far more modern avionics and have suffered from significantly less operational issues. The aircraft was designed with a strong specialisation in air to air combat, and began development in the late 1970s in response to the Soviet Su-27 Flanker fourth generation fighter program. A successor is currently under development under the Next Generation Air Dominance sixth generation fighter program.