By Alan W. Dowd
The Raptor Takes Wing
After years of testing and refinements, America’s newest fighter jet, the F-22 Raptor, is officially ready for combat. “If we have to go out the door to a conflict that starts tomorrow,” according to Gen. Ronald Keys of the US Air Combat Command, “we’re going to take the Raptor with us.”
In June, the Air Force will send 12 F-22s to Alaska for the jet’s first official peacetime deployment. Keys told the AP that these first combat-ready F-22s will be flying with the 27th Fighter Squadron of the 1st Fighter Wing. Over time, the Air Force intends to steadily replace the F-15 with the Raptor, which costs about $330 million per plane, when research and development costs are factored in.
Developed by Lockheed Martin, the plane is faster, more lethal and far stealthier than its venerable older cousins, the F-15 and F-117. An innovative “super-cruise” feature enables the plane to travel at supersonic speeds for sustained periods of time without using the afterburners. Neither of its predecessors can do that. Unlike the F-15, special antennae, air inlets, internal bomb ports, engine exhaust and a radar-absorbing skin qualify the F-22 as a “low-observable” or stealth aircraft. Unlike the F-117, the F-22 is designed to engage ground and air targets.
Even F-15 pilots—known for their allegiance to the fighter-bomber that proved its worth in the Balkans and Persian Gulf throughout the 1990s—are impressed. “It’s a fighter pilot’s dream,” said Col. Walter Givhan, who formerly piloted the F-15 and is now wing commander at Nellis AFB. Nellis served as a proving ground for the Raptor.
The Air Force has 56 F-22s spread across bases in Virginia, Nevada, Florida and California, with near-term plans to deploy 183 of the next-generation warplanes. That would be enough for seven full Raptor squadrons. According to a report in Reuters, 67 additional F-22s have already progressed through their final assembly stage.
To the Moon and Beyond
NASA has unveiled the broad outlines of the next generation of space vehicles, which will carry Americans to “the Moon, Mars and beyond.” The details were sketched in a recent issue of The New Atlantis, a journal of technology and society published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC.
NASA’s big-thinkers propose to replace the Space Shuttle, which is set to be phased out by the end of this decade, with a winged Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) that “will look more like the old Apollo spacecraft, a capsule that sits atop its rockets.” But the CEV will be able to carry four astronauts to the Moon’s surface—double what Apollo could carry. It will also use solar panels as one of its power sources, have the ability to be re-used (like the Shuttle but unlike Apollo) and have the capability to touch down on land (like the Shuttle) or splash down in the water (like the Apollo ships).
NASA plans to send two separate vehicles into space to make its next voyage to the Moon. One will carry the CEV, which means it will be manned by a crew. The other, which is much larger, will carry cargo such as the lunar lander; it will be unmanned. The mission would have multiple stages, including:
· Stage one consisting of the heavy-lift unmanned cargo rocket going into orbit;
· Stage two consisting of the CEV and its crew going into orbit;
· Stage three consisting of the CEV docking with the cargo rocket;
· Stage four consisting of the CEV and cargo rocket pushing toward the Moon;
· Stage five consisting of lunar orbit;
· Stage six consisting of the lander jettisoning down to the surface;
· Stage seven consisting of landing and exploration of the Moon, including the lunar poles;
· Stage eight leaping back to the orbiting CEV for departure back to Earth.
NASA hopes the CEV can make its first flight by 2012, aims for a lunar mission by 2018, and projects the total price tag over the next 13 years to be $104 billion—“meaning it will cost 55 percent less than Apollo, when adjusted for constant dollars.”
Room for Russians and Americans
Kyrgyzstan has agreed to allow “open-ended” use of its territory for US troops fighting the war on terror in nearby Afghanistan. The former Soviet republic approved the extension after US Secretary of State Condolezza Rice visited Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev late last fall. The US currently pays $40-50 million to use the facilities.
Under the agreement, which was detailed in the San Francisco Chronicle, the US will continue to use an airfield and deploy around a thousand troops in the Central Asian country.
In an interesting twist, Russia also maintains a military facility outside the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek.
As a contributing editor to The American Legion, Dowd writes columns and news briefs on national security, foreign affairs and U.S. politics each month for the magazine's "Rapid Fire" section.