On an otherwise unremarkable day in March 2013, an American MQ-1 Predator drone was flying in international airspace off Iran, conducting a routine surveillance flight over Persian Gulf. But the U.S. Air Force force knew trouble might be lurking ahead.

Several months earlier, a pair of Iranian Sukhoi Su-25 attack planes had attempted unsuccessfully to shoot down another patrolling Predator. After that, the Pentagon decided subsequent drone patrols would be escorted, either by by F/A-18 Hornets from the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier or F-22s deployed to nearby Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. On this day, Lt. Col. Kevin "Showtime" Sutterfield was the escort, heading toward the drone in case of trouble.

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"Showtime" was in a Raptor. 

At the annual conference of the Air Force Association later that year, USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh would tell the crowd what happened next: As the Predator flew its pre-planned route, two Iranian F-4 Phantoms approached and acquired the drone on their radars. One of the Phantoms got to within 16 miles of the MQ-1. On another heading, Col. Sutterfield closed on the F-4. 

"Showtime is an Air Force Reservist … he flies the F-22. He flies it really well," Welsh said. "He flew under their [Phantom] to check out their weapons load without them knowing that he was there. And then he pulled up on their left wing and then called them and said, 'You really ought to go home.'"

When you hear enough stories like this one, it becomes no surprise to find out that many people—including members of Congress—are toying with the idea of restarting the F-22 production line and make more Raptors. Russia and China are catching up with American airpower. They're on the cusp of fielding airplanes like the Sukhoi PAK-FA and Chengdu J-20 that can beat 4th generation fighters like the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18, preventing these and other strike aircraft from penetrating their defenses. But the F-22—the first 5th generation fighter and still the only operational one—retains an edge over such threats. Trouble is, America has 186 Raptors, only 123 of which are combat-capable.

The next big thing, of course, is the F-35. The U.S. eventually will deploy the Joint Strike Fighter, but as Gen. Welsh told Defense News last year, the F-35 "was never designed to be the next dogfighting machine. It was designed to be the multipurpose, data-integration platform that could do all kinds of things in the air-to-ground arena."

The Raptor was all about air-to-air combat from the very start.

Advanced Tactical Fighter

The F-22 was born of the Cold War. In the early 1980s, the Air Force wanted what it called the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF), a new air superiority fighter to replace the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Falcon. It was a response to the Soviet MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker that threatened American air dominance.

Two teams formed. One was made up of Lockheed, Boeing, and General Dynamics, while Northrop and McDonnell Douglas constituted the competition. A competitive four-year demonstration followed, culminating in the flight test of two demonstration prototypes, the YF-22 and YF-23. The Lockheed-led team used thrust-vectoring nozzles on its YF-22 for enhanced maneuverability in dogfights. The Northrop team, meanwhile, prioritized stealth and supercruise (prolonged supersonic flight without the use of afterburners).