In 1905 the Royal Navy launched HMS Dreadnought. Dreadnought was a game changer, the first all big gun battleship, its steam turbine engines and advanced armour protection made it appear superior to all other capital ships. Perhaps to symbolize the new age, it was the first Royal Navy capital ship in hundreds of years not to be issued with boarding pikes.
More then a ship, more then a symbol, Dreadnought was a statement. It wasn’t just her size and power that attracted attention. Dreadnought, according to the Royal Navy, had been built in a year and a day. Even if they were shading the facts a little they made their point. British industry could out build and out design any possible combination of other countries.
Dreadnought was also a gamble. At a stroke she made all other battleships obsolete. The Royal Navy had more battleships then any other navy, they had more to loose by introducing this new technology. They also knew that it was inevitable. Other nations had similar ships literally ‘on the drawing boards’. The costs were enormous, but by taking this step first they signaled that they intended to win the arms race that building Dreadnought made inevitable.
Fast forward a hundred years and we come to the F-22. Like Dreadnought before her they are as much a symbol as a weapon. The product of a manufacturing and design complex at its peak, its ability to dominate the battle space is only exceeded by its cost.
Like Dreadnought, they appear to make all fighters that came before them obsolete. Like the Royal Navy before them the U.S. Airforce is taking a gamble. As the worlds largest and most powerful Airforce they have the most to loose by making their current inventory appear obsolescent. Like Great Britain before them the United States is signaling to a new generation of rising powers that they will not be deterred by a new arms race.
F-22s are as much a symbol as weapons system. They can be used to signal intent. Headlines like “F-22 Raptor squadron deployed to gulf region” are meant to send a message to friends and enemies alike. There use, or non-use, can send a clear signal about just how important a "crisis' is to the United States government.
In fact, like all those ‘modern’ battleships that spent most of World War One swinging at anchor in Scapa Flow, F-22s are seldom, if ever, used. It is the A-10’s and F-16’s and B-52’s that carry the load for the U.S. Airforce just as it was the cruisers and destroyers and monitors that really fought the Great War for the RN.
It’s not just that their advanced design makes them incompatible with other fighters; it is also because, like the battleships, their cost and prestige value make them too expensive to contemplate using, and perhaps losing, in anything other then extreme circumstances.
It can be argued that in the end the massive expense of building battleships was for little purpose. It may be that history will judge the F-22 in the same light. Other nations, like China, Russia and India are doing their best to catch up and build similar aircraft. It is not impossible that when they do the Raptor production lines will be re-opened and, regardless of the cost, a new arms race will ensue.
What is not known now is what will come after them. When HMS Dreadnought was being built aircraft were a new and fragile technology. Few would have predicted then that they would make the largest most powerful weapons obsolete. Not just obsolete, but irrelevant. What new technology will doom the F-22 and her sister ‘5th generation’ fighters? It is far easier to predict the rise of drones or EMP weapons then to know what the future really holds, but what can be certain is that these battleships of the air will one day be seen as just as dated in modern warfare as HMS Dreadnought.