The Air Force is performing key maintenance on the F-22 Raptor's stealth materials and upgrading the stealth fighter with new attack weapons to include improved air-to-air and air-to-surface strike technology, service officials said.
"In the Summer of 2019, the F-22 fleet will begin to receive upgrades to its available weapons with the Increment 3.2B upgrade. This upgrade allows full functionality for the AIM-120D and AIM-9X Air-to-Air missiles as well as enhanced Air-to-Surface target location capabilities," 1st Lt. Carrie J. Volpe, Action Officer, Air Combat Command Public Affaris, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., told Scout Warrior.
The F-22 currently carries the AIM-9X Block 1 and the current upgrade will enable carriage of AIM-9X Block 2, Volpe added.
Raytheon AIM-9X weapons developers explain that the Block 2 variant adds a redesigned fuze and a digital ignition safety device that enhances ground handling and in-flight safety. Block II also features updated electronics that enable significant enhancements, including lock-on-after-launch capability using a new weapon datalink to support beyond visual range engagements, a Raytheon statement said.
Another part of the weapons upgrade includes engineering the F-22 to fire the AIM-120D, a beyond visual range Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), designed for all weather day-and-night attacks; it is a "fire and forget" missile with active transmit radar guidance, Raytheon data states. The AIM-120D is built with upgrades to previous AMRAAM missiles by increasing attack range, GPS navigation, inertial measurement units and a two-way data link, Raytheon statements explain.
U.S. Air National Guard photo/Senior Master Sgt. Ralph Branson
The AIM-120D also includes improved High-Angle Off-Boresight technology enabling the weapon to destroy targets at a wider range of angles.
Additional upgrades to the stealth fighter, slated for 2021, are designed to better enable digital communications via data links with 4th and 5th generation airplanes.
"The backbone of this upgrade also includes the installation of an open systems architecture that will allow for future upgrades to be done faster and at less expense than could be previously accomplished," Volpe said.
Stealth Coating Maintenance
The Air Force has contracted Lockheed Martin to perform essential maintenance to the F-22's low-observable stealth coating to ensure it is equipped to manage fast-emerging threats.
Lockheed Martin completed the first F-22 Raptor at the company's Inlet Coating Repair (ICR) Speedline, a company statement said.
"Periodic maintenance is required to maintain the special exterior coatings that contribute to the 5th Generation Raptor's Very Low Observable radar cross-section," Lockheed stated.
The increase in F-22 deployments, including ongoing operational combat missions, has increased the demand for ICR. Additionally, Lockheed Martin is providing modification support services, analytical condition inspections, radar cross section turntable support and antenna calibration.
F-22 Attack & Supercruise Technology
As a fifth-generation stealth fighter, the F-22 is specifically engineered for air supremacy and air dominance missions, meaning its radar-evading technology is designed to elude and destroy enemy air defenses. The aircraft is also configured to function as the world's premier air-to-air fighter able to "dogfight" and readily destroy enemy aircraft.
An F-22 deploys flares. | US Air Force photo
"Air superiority, using stealth characteristics is our primary role. The air dominance mission is what we will always do first. Once we are comfortable operating in that battlespace, our airmen are going to find ways to contribute," Col. Larry Broadwell, the Commander of the 1st Operations Group at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, told Scout Warrior in a special pilot interview last year.
The F-22's command and control sensors and avionics help other coalition aircraft identify and destroy targets. While some of the aircraft's technologies are not "publically discussable," Broadwell did say that the F-22's active and passive sensors allow it to function as an "aerial quarterback" allowing the mission to unfold.
For example, drawing upon information from a ground-based command and control center or nearby surveillance plane – such as a Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System – the F-22 can receive information or target coordinates from nearby drones, Broadwell explained.
At the moment, targeting information from drones is relayed from the ground station back up to an F-22. However, computer algorithms and technology is fast evolving such that aircraft like an F-22s will soon be able to quickly view drone video feeds in the cockpit without needing a ground station -- and eventually be able to control nearby drones from the air. These developments were highlighted in a special Scout Warrior interview with Air Force Chief Scientist Greg Zacharias.
Zacharias explained that fifth generation fighters such as the F-35 and F-22 are quickly approaching an ability to command-and-control nearby drones from the air. This would allow unmanned systems to deliver payload, test enemy air defenses and potentially extend the reach of ISR misisons.
"Because of its sensors, the F-22 is uniquely able to improve the battlefield awareness - not just for airborne F-22s but the other platforms that are airborne as well," he said. The Raptor has an F-22-specific data link to share information with other F-22s and also has the ability to use a known data link called LINK 16 which enables it to communicate with other aircraft in the coalition, Broadwell explained in an interview last year.
Newer F-22s have a technology called Synthetic Aperture Radar, or SAR, which uses electromagnetic signals or "pings" to deliver a picture or rendering of the terrain below, allow for better target identification.
F-22A Raptors with the 94th Fighter Squadron drop joint direct attack munitions. | U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II
The SAR technology sends a ping to the ground and then analyzes the return signal to calculate the contours, distance and characteristics of the ground below.
"The addition of SAR mapping has certainly enhanced our air-to-ground capability. Previously, we would have to take off with pre-determined target coordinates. Now, we have an ability to more dynamically use the SAR to pinpoint a target while airborne," Broadwell added.
"The F-35 is needed because it is to global precision attack what the F-22 is to air superiority," he added. "These two aircrafts were built to work together in concert. It is unfortunate that we have so few F-22s. We are going to ask the F-35 to contribute to the air superiority mission," he said.
Overall, the Air Force operates somewhere between 80 and 100 F-22s. Dave Majumdar of The National Interest writes that many would like to see more F-22s added to the Air Force arsenal. For instance, some members of Congress, such as former Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., have requested that more F-22s be built, given its technological superiority.
Citing budget concerns, Air Force officials have said it is unlikely the service will want to build new F-22s, however it is possible the Trump administration could want to change that.
The F-22 is known for a range of technologies including an ability called "super cruise" which enables the fighter to reach speeds of Mach 1.5 without needing to turn on its after burners.
"The F-22 engines produce more thrust than any current fighter engine. The combination of sleek aerodynamic design and increased thrust allows the F-22 to cruise at supersonic airspeeds. Super Cruise greatly expands the F-22's operating envelope in both speed and range over current fighters, which must use fuel-consuming afterburner to operate at supersonic speeds," Broadwell explained.
The fighter jet fires a 20mm cannon and has the ability to carry and fire all the air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons including precision-guided ground bombs, such Joint Direct Attack Munitions called the GBU 32 and GBU 39, Broadwell explained. In the air-to-air configuration the Raptor carries six AIM-120 AMRAAMs and two AIM-9 Sidewinders, he added.
"The F-22 possesses a sophisticated sensor suite allowing the pilot to track, identify, shoot and kill air-to-air threats before being detected. Significant advances in cockpit design and sensor fusion improve the pilot's situational awareness," he said.
It also uses what's called a radar-warning receiver – a technology which uses an updatable data base called "mission data files" to recognize a wide-range of enemy fighters, Broadwell said.
Made by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the F-22 uses two Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 turbofan engines with afterburners and two-dimensional thrust vectoring nozzles, an Air Force statement said. It is 16-feet tall, 62-feet long and weighs 43,340 pounds. Its maximum take-off weight is 83,500.
The aircraft was first introduced in December of 2005, and each plane costs $143 million, Air Force statements say.
F-22 Raptors sit on the flight line at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii Feb. 12. The fighters and more than 250 Airmen from the 27th Fighter Squadron at Langley Air Force Base, Va., are bound for Kadena Air Base, Japan. This is the Raptor's first overseas operational deployment. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Tech. Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo)
"Its greatest asset is the ability to target attack and kill an enemy without the enemy ever being aware they are there," Broadwell added.
The Air Force's stealthy F-22 Raptor fighter jet delivered some of the first strikes in the U.S.-led attacks on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, when aerial bombing began in 2014, service officials told Scout Warrior.
After delivering some of the first strikes in the U.S. Coalition-led military action against ISIS, the F-22 began to shift its focus from an air-dominance mission to one more focused on supporting attacks on the ground.
"An F-22 squadron led the first strike in OIR (Operation Inherent Resolve). The aircraft made historic contributions in the air-to-ground regime,"
Even though ISIS does not have sophisticated air defenses or fighter jets of their own to challenge the F-22, there are still impactful ways in which the F-22 continues to greatly help the ongoing attacks, Broadwell said.
"There are no issues with the air superiority mission. That is the first thing they focus on. After that, they can transition to what they have been doing over the last several months and that has been figuring out innovative ways to contribute in the air-to-ground regime to support the coalition," Broadwell said.