The shooting down of an alleged Chinese giant spy balloon was done by an F-22 Raptor off the coast of South Carolina. “An F-22 Raptor fighter from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, fired one AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at the balloon,” the US Space Force website reported. “The balloon fell approximately six miles off the coast in about 47 feet of water,” the report said. “No one was hurt.”
In addition, the US military said the shooting down took place somewhere between 60,000 and 65,000 feet, and the F-22 fired its missile at 58,000 feet.
“F-15 Eagles flying from Barnes Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts, supported the F-22, as did tankers from multiple states including Oregon, Montana, South Carolina and North Carolina,” the US Space Force website reported. “Canadian forces also helped track the overflight of the balloon. The Navy has deployed the destroyer USS Oscar Austin, the cruiser USS Philippine Sea and the USS Carter Hall, an amphibious landing ship in support of the effort.”
According to The Drive news site, “The saga that began with the balloon’s appearance high above Billings, Montana, on February 1 reached its climax Saturday with an explosion and the balloon’s subsequent fall from high altitude. Videos of the shoot-down showed an F-22 Raptor launching an air-to-air missile at the balloon for the kill. This would be the F-22’s first ‘kill.’”
That this is the F-22’s first air-to-air kill is important as a milestone for the aircraft. Two F-22s involved in the mission had call signs that hearkened back to US First Lieutenant Frank Luke Jr, who received a US Army Air Service Medal of Honor for his role in the World War I. He shot down 14 German military balloons in 1918. The call signs for the F-22s were FRANK01 and FRANK02. The FAA had ordered a ground stop for aircraft in the area. It was not clear if there was a similar warning for ships in the area.
“The F-22 primarily uses the AIM-9X now, but can also carry the AIM-9L/M as it had for years,” The Drive reported. “The missiles can be cued by the F-22’s AN/APG-77 radar and AIM-9X Block II can use its datalink to be locked on and prosecute its target with the help of the F-22’s powerful radar after launch. It isn’t clear if the missile had a warhead or not.”
The F-22 first flew in 1997 and entered service in 2005. It was developed by Lockheed Martin and is a single-seat, twin-engine aircraft. It grew out of a competition that dates back to the 1980s to develop a new advanced tactical fighter that would provide the US with air superiority. It was designed to have stealth abilities and to dominate anything that the Soviets were making at the time.
A competition between Lockheed, which partnered with Boeing and General Dynamics, pitted the experimental YF-22 against a similar aircraft dubbed YF-23, developed by Northrop and McDonnell Douglas. Demonstrations were held in 1990. The YF-22 won and became the F-22.
In 2007, 12 F-22s were sent for their first overseas operational deployment in Japan. “The aircraft and more than 250 airmen from the 27th Fighter Squadron from Langley AFB, Va., are supporting the US Pacific Command’s Theater Security Package in the Western Pacific,” the US Air Force said at the time.
“Air Force F-22 Raptors arrived at Al Dhafra Air Base, in the United Arab Emirates, Feb. 12 as part of a multifaceted demonstration of US support after a series of attacks throughout January threatened US and Emirati armed forces stationed at the host installation.”US Air Force
Despite deployments abroad, many have wondered when the aircraft would officially see action. Meanwhile, the fifth-generation F-35 was developed and began to be deployed operationally abroad – to Europe in 2017 and by the British in 2019. The F-35 saw its first combat operation in use by Israel in 2018.
In April 2018, “US Air Force F-22 Raptors played an integral role in protecting ground forces during and after the multinational strikes against Syrian chemical weapons production facilities on the morning of April 14,” Military.com quoted AFCENT spokesman Mark Graff as saying.
“The F-22 Raptor is fast developing a reputation as the aircraft that gets left behind during combat ops,” the report said, adding that the “Air Force fifth-generation stealth fighter was not flying alongside a pair of B-1B Lancer bombers that dropped missiles on Syrian targets.” Nevertheless, the aircraft have been deployed to the Middle East as a show of US support for the region.
“Air Force F-22 Raptors arrived at Al Dhafra Air Base, in the United Arab Emirates, February 12 as part of a multifaceted demonstration of US support after a series of attacks throughout January threatened US and Emirati armed forces stationed at the host installation,” the US Air Force said in February 2022.
The F-22s have also been pulling their weight in the Pacific. They were sent there in 2021 and also in June, August and November 2022 in various roles. In November 2022, the US Air Force began “deploying F-22A fighter jets to the Kadena Air Base, Japan, as part of a phased withdrawal of its retiring F-15C/D fleet,” the Defense Post new site reported.
The use of the F-22 against the Chinese balloon allowed it to perform a very limited version of its envisioned role. Decades after development, it was used in this important mission.
The reason it hasn’t seen more air-to-air kills or other missions, however, is not due to the aircraft; it is because the US has been a global hegemon since the end of the Cold War, and most airspace the US operates in has been uncontested: There simply aren’t things to shoot down.
As tensions rise with China and Russia, this may be changing. The F-22 is an interesting legacy of the Cold War. It is still dominating the skies – in essence, showcasing its air-superiority role, in part because the US has had no recent competitors.