LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. -- Thirty minutes after punching through the clouds over the Chesapeake Bay, Lt. Col. James Hecker reared up the nose of his F/A-22 Raptor fighter jet, like a snake preparing to strike, and skidded across the sky. The novel move gives the Raptor an advantage in the close-in dogfights the Air Force wants to avoid.
"We prefer shooting and killing them before they know we're there, but that [maneuver] works too," said Hecker, also known as "Scorch," the commander of Langley's 27th Fighter Squadron, after the recent training flight.
"There is not a pilot who has flown the Raptor that isn't in love" with it, says Lt. Col. James Hecker, 27th Fighter Squadron commander.
(Jay Paul For The Washington Post)
In this video, see the F/A-22 in flight and meet Lt. Col. James Hecker, commander of the 27th Fighter Squadron at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, the first operational F/A-22 Raptor squadron in the Air Force.
Watch the F/A-22 Video
The Raptor's Long Journey: This graphic timeline traces the 20-year history of the F/A-22 program.
Transcript: Washington Post staff writer Renae Merle was online to answer reader questions about her article on the F-22 Raptor program. She was joined by Air Force Maj. Charles Corcoran, a pilot training to fly the new jet.
The Raptor is a fighter pilot's dream. It is nearly impossible to detect by radar and its cruising speed is more than 1,000 miles an hour, twice that of most potential rivals. Most fighters have sensors to spot the planes in front of them. The cockpit of the Raptor is reminiscent of a video game, taking a 360-degree picture and splashing it on an eight-inch screen while an onboard computer helps the pilot decide what to strike first.
"It's like having a God's-eye view of what's out there," Hecker said. "There is not a pilot who has flown the Raptor that isn't in love."
The question facing the Pentagon and Congress is whether the Raptor's superior abilities, and the affection of pilots and Air Force leaders, is enough to justify a more than $70 billion investment at the same time the military is stretched thin by ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics contend that the Air Force, long dominated by fighter pilots, is exaggerating the threat it faces from enemy fighters at a time when warfare has changed and low-tech weapons such as shoulder-fired missiles are a greater threat. The service, they say, should be deploying more unmanned aircraft and replacing an aging bomber fleet.
The Raptor is months away from being declared war-ready, but the Pentagon is still trying to decide where it fits in its vision of future warfare. The Bush administration has proposed cutting $10 billion from the program over the next five years, leaving enough to buy fewer than half the 381 planes the Air Force says it needs. And the plane will have to compete, in an age of budget deficits, with plans to refurbish the Army and fund an even more expensive fighter program, the Joint Strike Fighter, which is still years from delivery.
How many Raptors the Pentagon buys -- no one expects the program to be killed -- is part of a debate over what kind of wars the nation's leaders should fear most: a large-scale battle with another industrial power, where the Raptor could dominate, or skirmishes in rogue states such as Iran or Syria, where ground forces would lead.
The Air Force and Lockheed Martin Corp., the main contractor, say the Raptor is essential in either scenario. They tout it as an insurance policy in any conflict against China or a resurgent Russia, and to counter increasingly sophisticated surface-to-air missiles with longer range and better targeting capabilities. "We have made it look so easy for so long, people don't realize how hard it is to establish air dominance," Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert III, the Air Force's deputy director of strategic planning, said in an interview. "Iraq is not a good example of what we'll see in the future."
The aging fleet of F-15 Eagles, which the Raptor will replace, is being bypassed technologically, Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, said in a recent interview in his Pentagon office.
Citing the latest planes being developed in Europe and Russia, he said, "I do not relish the idea of some of the technology I saw in the Eurofighter . . . in the hands of certain nations. I think certain models of the [Russian built] Sukhoi are already superior to the F-15."