In the decade and a half since it first entered service, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor has been an air superiority fighter without equal. But that hasn’t always been the case.

For a short time in the 1990s, the YF-22, which would lead to the operational F-22, may have met its match in the form of Northrop’s YF-23. Either of these highly capable airframes would have resulted in a dominant air superiority fighter that would be the first of a new generation. And the truth is, performance may not have even been the ultimate deciding factor between these two jets. Perception is everything, even in the airplane business.

A New Fighter for an Old War

In the 1980s, the United States Air Force started hunting for a new kind of fighter that could dominate the latest generation of Soviet jets like the Su-27 and Mig-29. While the Soviet Union was less than a decade away from collapse, its fighters were highly capable fourth-generation platforms developed specifically to counter America’s premier fighters, the air superiority F-15 Eagle and the multi-purpose F-16 Fighting Falcon.

An F-16 Fighting Falcon flies in formation with a MiG-29 during exercise Sentry White Falcon 05. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Shaun Kerr)

Rather than continuing to develop ever-more-powerful and higher flying fighters as had been the norm throughout much of the Cold War, the Air Force wanted to incorporate a newer and uniquely American capability into its next-generation fighter: stealth. Among its other requirements was the ability to “supercruise” or maintain supersonic speeds without using the aircraft’s afterburners. Super cruising would mean this new fighter would be able to close with enemy jets at a high rate of speed without sacrificing much in the way of fuel. This would ensure the new fighter would have plenty of fight left in it after a long haul to the battlespace. The Air Force intended to order 750 of the winning fighters to replace the F-15 Eagle as America’s first line of defense against inbound Soviet bombers and fighters.