With Russia and China deploying advanced new fighters and surface-to-air missiles (SAM), the task of gaining and maintaining air superiority over an increasingly more lethal battlespace falls to a small and elite group of U.S. Air Force pilots flying the mighty Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.

Conceived during the waning years of the Cold War, the stealthy high-flying supersonically cruising Raptor was designed to defeat the most fearsome weapons the Soviet Union could hurl at the United States and NATO during a third world war in Europe. However, with the end of the Cold War and subsequent 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the F-22 was left without a mission—or so it was thought. Indeed, the second Bush and Obama administrations cancelled the F-22 program in 2008 after only 195 aircraft—187 production planes—were ordered because they made the assumption that high-end state-on-state conflicts were a relic of the past. However, as it is becoming increasingly apparent, they were wrong.

Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke about a return to great power competition. “We will be prepared for a high-end enemy. That's what we call full spectrum. In our budget, our plans, our capabilities and our actions, we must demonstrate to potential foes, that if they start a war, we have the capability to win. Because the force that can deter conflict, must show that it can dominate a conflict,” Carter said, speaking at the Washington Economic Club in February. “In this context, Russia and China are our most stressing competitors. They have developed and are continuing to advance military systems that seek to threaten our advantages in specific areas. And in some case, they are developing weapons and ways of wars that seek to achieve their objectives rapidly, before they hope, we can respond.”

Indeed, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia protected the best of its military-industrial capabilities as much as it could during the economic and social meltdown of the 1990s. Despite its severe problems, Russia managed to develop and field advanced weapon systems such as the Su-35S Flanker-E, S-300V4 and S-400 among others. Meanwhile, a rising China modernized its forces in earnest—developing new fighters and new SAM system such as the formidable J-16 and HQ-9. Thus, while Washington took its eyes off potential challengers to focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaders in Beijing and Moscow continued to modernize their militaries to keep American forces at bay in the event of a future conflict.

Why America Needs the F-22 Raptor (Now More Than Ever):

Now, with voices on the left and the right clamoring for action in Syria, where the Kremlin is propping up its long-time ally—the Assad regime—the Pentagon finds that it has to rely on its tiny fleet of 186 F-22 Raptors if the call comes to establish a no-fly zone or a safe-zone in that war-torn nation. The Raptor is the only operational combat aircraft that the United States operates that Washington can rely on to take-on and defeat advanced air defenses such as the Pantsir-S1, S-300V4 and S-400 that Moscow has dispatched to Syria. Moreover, it is the only aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory that possesses a huge performance overmatch against late generation Russian fighters such as the Su-30SM Flanker-H and Su-35S Flanker-E, both of which the Kremlin has also deployed to the region.

“Our role is to kick down the door,” 1st Fighter Wing commander, Col. Pete Fesler—a veteran F-22 Raptor pilot—told me during a visit to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. “We are, without a doubt, on the leading edge of whatever force you’re going to send because we have an airplane that has a capability that no one else has.”

Training Matters:

But while it is important to have the right tools, more important is the human dimension. Pilots and maintainers must be trained and ready to defeat the highest-end threats if they are to be sent into combat. Recently, I visited the U.S. Air Force’s elite 1st Fighter Wing—a vanguard unit flying the F-22 Raptor—during an operational readiness exercise. Unlike a large force exercise such as Red Flag or the U.S. Air Force Weapons School’s Mission Employment Phase—which are focused on developing pilot skills—an operational readiness exercise is designed to test a unit’s ability for to deploy. It’s essentially a dress rehearsal for going to war.

“The Raptor pilots—while they are a critical component—are still just one part of a team. Nothing is going to happen unless the maintainers can get the airplanes running; the LO maintainers can keep the skin healthy; the munitions guys can build the bombs and the missiles, and the weapons loader can get them on the airplane; the air traffic controllers can launch them; intel folks can prep the pilots for the mission they are going to do. All those things have to come together, and if they get out of synch, none of it works,” Fesler told me as he showed me around the flight line. “This exercise was designed to take us out of an in-garrison steady state operation, rapidly mobilize, deploy, regenerate the aircraft, and then turn right into sustained combat employment. There is no other way to train to that.”

As Fesler explained to me, the idea behind the exercise was to take the six squadrons that make up the wing—plus personnel from the Virginia Air National Guard’s 192d Fighter Wing and the supporting units—and deploy them to a different part of the base while simulating austere conditions. For the purposes of the exercise, the Wing was given ‘prepare to deploy’ orders for a particular theater and told to get ready to leave with very little notice. Once ordered to deploy, the Wing and its personnel then had to package all of the support equipment and configure their aircraft for that particular theater and then deploy within a few hours. Indeed, during my visit, the Wing’s two F-22 squadrons had deployed to two different parts of the base and were operating out of tents on the flight line. “It’s very carefully orchestrated,” Fesler said.

The Ultimate ‘Insurance’ Policy:

In many ways, the Raptor is the U.S. Air Force’s insurance policy. While the rest of the Air Force has been preparing for and fighting low-intensity warfare scenarios, as an elite vanguard force, the Raptor fleet has focused almost exclusively on defeating the highest-end threats. “We’ve been focused on the high-end threat all along,” Fesler said. “In fact, the departure from standard for us is the times we go over to OIR [Operation Inherent Resolve—the counter ISIS campaign] and do the close air support type missions over there. Low-intensity conflict is not our bread and butter.”

Even since the earliest days when the Raptor entered operational testing 2002, the F-22 has performed incredibly well in simulated combat—amassing lopsided victories in the air. Even when flying against the most challenging simulated threats—advanced Russian fighters such as the Su-35 and S-300V4 and S-400—it is exceedingly rare for an F-22 to be ‘shot down’. “Losses in the F-22 are a rarity regardless of the threat we’re training against,” Fesler said.

Why The ‘Raptor’ Dominates:

Indeed, one of the problems for the F-22 is to generate enough targets and a tough enough threat so that pilots get some useful training. Another problem is that the jet is so capable—in terms of its sheer speed, acceleration, stealth, sensors, and maneuverability—it actually compensates for tactical errors.

“It makes up for a lot of shortcomings on the pilot side, you can have a really bad day and the airplane will still do phenomenally well,” said one senior F-22 pilot who goes by the callsign ‘Crash’. “Just because you win the fight, doesn’t mean you did well. Just because you lost, doesn’t mean you screwed up. We build scenarios to track that, so there are times when guys will die in training when they did everything right and there is other times dudes are screwing up left and right and they’re completely successful. But in this airplane, it is much easier to survive.”

In order to train pilots for the exercise, the 1st Fighter Wing uses a combination of T-38 trainers and other F-22s to act as “Red Air”—replicating “advanced Flanker” level threats. Meanwhile, the F-22’s onboard computers and data-links replicate enemy surface-to-air threats such as the S-300V4 and S-400. During one sortie, the Raptor flew against a combination of “advanced Flankers” and a very robust surface threat—a young 1st Fighter Wing F-22 weapon officer by the callsign of ‘Bullet’ told me. Bullet—as a graduate of the Air Force’s elite Weapons School—was one of the lead planners for the exercise.

“Typically, we’ll train against the biggest and baddest threats because we want to train against the newest threat on the block,” Bullet told me. “What’s the worst case scenario so that we can employ how we would—because when we train to that high level and into actual combat and it’s not at that high level, we’re not as task saturated. It’s a lot easier for us to manage.”

Because the jet is so capable—and the pilots are the elite of the elite—the ‘Red Air’ has to effectively overwhelm the Raptors with sheer numbers. Indeed, Crash described one scenario where four F-22s took on ten “fourth-gen” enemy aircraft–similar to a Su-35—simultaneously (and which ‘regenerate’—or come back to life). “A little bit more than your typical fourth-gen,” Crash said. “We’re not training against things that are not operational yet. We’re fighting against the most advanced operational threats we can.”

Typically, the Blue F-22s will slaughter the enemy from long-range. Indeed, as Fesler notes, if an enemy aircraft has survived to enter the “merge”—or visual range combat—and finds a Raptor, something has gone terribly wrong. That usually leads to an intensive debrief to understand what went wrong. Indeed, all of the pilots I spoke to unanimously told me that the debrief is the most important part of a training sortie. Nonetheless, F-22 pilots train extensively for a visual range fight. “We usually train full-up versus full-up,” Crash said. “We assume that a Western-trained F-22 is going to be the most challenging threat we’re going to go against.”

A Big Upgrade (And Something Needed):

One recent addition to the Raptors at Langley is the new Block 3.2A/Update 5 software. At long last, the new upgrade adds the Raytheon AIM-9X Sidewinder high-off boresight missile—something long coveted by the F-22 community. The additional of the AIM-9X is a huge improvement for the Raptor, all of the pilots at 1st Fighter Wing that I spoke to told me. The addition of the new weapon greatly increases the F-22’s already formidable lethality. That’s even though Upgrade 5 is an interim capability. The AIM-9X and the Raytheon AIM-120D AMRAAM missiles will be fully integrated onto the Raptor with the Increment 3.2B upgrade—which has yet to be fielded.

The one thing that the F-22 is still lacking is a helmet-mounted cueing system (HMCS) that would be used to exploit the outer edges of the AIM-9X’s capabilities. It’s a feature that is common on most U.S. fighter aircraft—and most foreign ones. The lack of such a system would normally place the Raptor at a severe disadvantage in a dogfight—if the aircraft didn’t perform as well as it does.

The Air Force is still planning on adding such a helmet-mounted cueing system to the F-22, but pilots at the 1st Fighter Wing say that it is not an absolute necessity. The Raptor can usually dominate a fight even without such a system. Indeed, as Fesler noted—even without the AIM-9X or a HMCS—F-22 pilots often close into gun range and ambush other jets in visual range. “I can sneak up on a guy,” Fesler said. “In the F-22, I convert on guys, and they never even see you there. You roll up right behind them and go ‘why waste a missile when you have a gun.’”

Ultimately, as the U.S. Air Force’s only dedicated fifth-generation air superiority fighter in an increasingly hostile world where the threat grows more challenging every day, it is in the service’s best interest to ensure the Raptor remains as capable as possible. Right now, the Air Force is slated to equip the F-22 with a helmet mounted sight by 2020, but similar efforts have fallen prey to budget cut in the past.

“The helmet would be awesome to have, but it’s not a game changer for us.” Crash said. “But a helmet-mounted sight would help us a lot.”

This article originally appeared inThe National Interest.

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