The Air Force is vigorously pursuing new avionics, radar, targeting sensors, weapons, glass cockpit displays and Artificial Intelligence for its F-22 stealth fighter to try to sustain air supremacy amid Russian and Chinese 5th-generation stealth fighter technical modernization, service officials said.
The service has an ambitious, wide-ranging set of objectives woven into this initiative; the Air Force aims enable the F-22 to ID targets at longer ranges, respond more efficiently to sensor input, sustain an air-to-air combat superiority over near-peer rivals and lay down a technical foundation such that the aircraft can quickly embrace new weapons, technologies, sensors and software as they emerge – all so that the F-22 can serve all the way out to 2060.
The multi-pronged effort is inherently connected to early iterations of increased computer automation and AI, as a mechanism to integrate otherwise disparate elements of F-22 avionics, sensors and mission systems. Common IP protocol standards, including both software and hardware, are engineered to provide a technical backbone enabling upgrades and integration of a variety of interconnected systems—to include radar warning receivers, AESA radar, LINK 16 connectivity, improved weapons, emerging sensor and targeting configurations and new transponders, able to identify friend or foe.
“The Air Force has made progress with efforts to upgrade sensors on the F-22. The Air Force continuously looks for ways to upgrade and enhance capabilities based on threats around the world, to include the F-22 sensors,” Capt. Emily Grabowski, Air Force spokeswoman, told Warrior Maven.
In concept and application, AI can lower a hardware footprint and increasingly use advanced algorithms to perform processes without requiring as much human intervention. For instance, a more integrated computer processor is better-equipped to potentially perform real-time analytics during a mission to make adjustments as maintenance and combat circumstances may require. Faster analytics, relying on newer forms of computer automation, can more quickly identify problems, recognize threats and streamline various cockpit functions.
In particular, this can mean the emergence of multi-function sensors where single systems can simultaneously perform different missions and organize incoming data. Such AI-oriented technologies can have targeting benefits for combat, threat-recognition improvements, longer-range enemy identification or weapons delivery applications.
Ken Merchant, Lockheed Vice President of F-22 Programs explained this to Warrior Maven in an interview, “we are starting AI, which includes what includes what we call enterprise sustainment organization. Our cockpit is still a series of six displays. Should we go to glass and synthesize new sensor inputs in front of the pilot? Can I squeeze all that information into a small display and sustain those for next 20-years, or should I go to glass?”
Many of these considerations, in terms of specifics, are expected to inform an upcoming mid-life upgrade and sustainment enterprise for the F-22 fleet. Merchant said the mid-life upgrade will not only extend the functional service life of the aircraft for several more decades, but also reduce technical risk. The mid-life work on the aircraft, slated for 2024, is primarily geared toward maintaining F-22 technological superiority while both China and Russia fast-track 5th-generation stealth aircraft.
Exploration of AI for the F-22 aligns, in many respects, with the current “sensor fusion” technologies built into the F-35; this includes organizing and displaying information from Electro-Optical/Targeting Systems (EOTS), Distributed Aperture Systems (DAS) and other sensors onto a single screen. Relying on advanced algorithms, this system is often referred to as man-machine interface, able to lower the “cognitive burden” placed on pilots, who can be freed up to focus on other priorities and decisions.
Specifically, Merchant said, F-22 engineers were already exploring a lightweight DAS-like sensor system for the F-22, able to bring advanced tech to the F-22 without compromising stealth advantages or maneuverability.
Computer-enabled AI, naturally, can greatly expedite completion of the Air Force’s long-discussed OODA-loop phenomenon, wherein pilots seek to quickly complete a decision-making cycle – Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action – faster than an enemy fighter. The concept, dating back decades to former Air Force pilot and theorist John Boyd, has long informed fighter-pilot training and combat preparation.
If pilots can complete the OODA loop more quickly than an enemy during an air-to-air combat engagement, described as “getting inside an enemy’s decision-making process,” they can destroy an enemy and prevail. Faster processing of information, empowering better pilot decisions, it naturally stands to reason, makes a big difference when it comes to the OODA loop.
This entire effort synchronizes with a current 3.2b software upgrade (covered extensively in Part 2 of the F-22 series), which uses agile software development to, among other things, upgrade F-22 weapons systems.
This progressive series of F-22 modernization enhancements feeds into a commensurate effort to update 1980s and 1990s computer technology, in some cases drawing on commercially available technical innovations, such as RedHat open-source software, Merchant explained. The mid-life upgrade will address much of this in an effort to ensure the pumps, valves and integrated core processors are brought up-to-date.
Newer F-22s are already getting advanced AESA radar, not unlike what is already on the F-35, engineered to accommodate software upgrades as they emerge. This architecture enables the aircraft radar warning receiver to broaden its threat library to identify new enemy aircraft. These upgrades involve the installation of new transponders able to quickly identify “friend or foe” aircraft more efficiently, developers explained.
“You can see air-to-air targets coming your way and a ground target will appear as a blip on a screen – with an information tag on it based on intel telling you what it is,” Merchant said.
Interoperability with the F-35 and 4th-gen aircraft will also be greatly improved by the addition of more LINK 16 data-link technology; the F-22 will be able to wirelessly transmit targeting, mapping and other sensor information to other aircraft without needing to rely upon potentially “hackable” voice transmissions, Merchant explained. Merchant said Lockheed and the Air Force are planning some initial flight tests of this transmit improvement by the end of this year.
“This will help everybody that is airborne see a common picture at the same time,” Merchant added.
A hardware portion of the upgrades, called a “tactical mandate,” involves engineering new antennas specifically designed to preserve the stealth configuration of the F-22, John Cottam, Lockheed F-22 Program Manager, told Warrior Maven.
“New antennas have to be first constructed. They will be retrofitted onto the airplane. Because of the stealth configuration putting, antennas on is difficult and time consuming,” he said.
Air Force is already using wirelessly-enabled automation to facilitate real-time analytics for conditioned based maintenance on board F-16s.
Automated CBM can help identify potential points of failure while an aircraft is in-mission and therefore increase safety and reliability while also lower costs and streamlining maintenance. AI is one of the emerging ways this can increasingly be accomplished. At the same time, AI is also fundamental to rapid targeting, navigation and other aircraft functions – it allows the aircraft to keep pace with rapid technology change and add new algorithms or computer processing tech as it becomes available.
Upgrading computer tech is something the Air Force is pursuing across the fleet, recognizing its significance to future combat; for instance, the service is progressing with an ongoing effort to equip the F-15 with the fastest jet-computer processor in the world, called the Advanced Display Core Processor, or ADCPII. Boeing developers tell Warrior Maven the system is capable of processing 87 billion instructions per second of computing throughput.
The F-22 will also continue to upgrade its collision avoidance technology which is somewhat different than the F-16s ground collision avoidance system which can automatically re-route an aircraft headed for collision. The F-22 system simply keeps the aircraft above a certain altitude in the event that a pilot is incapacitated. Also, auto-navigation software could be used to help an F-22 maneuver, re-position during an air-to-air engagement or land in challenged circumstances. A technology of this kind, called Delta Flight Path, is already operational on the F-35; the software helps guide the aircraft independently in circumstances where that might be necessary.
Autonomous, or semi-autonomous, flight is a fast-evolving technology across the US military services which increasingly see AI as a key wave to future warfare; the Air Force has already experimented with unmanned F-16s and there is a lot of work going more broadly in this area. Former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus once said the service’s F-35C will likely be the last “manned” fighter. This question, continues to inform an ongoing debate. AI enabled autonomous flight, while bringing some advantages without question, also has limitations, military scientists and engineers explain.
Thus far, AI-enabled computer programs are able to complete procedures much more quickly than efficiently, in many instances, than a human can. At the same time, there is still not as of yet a suitable substitute for the kind of problem-solving and dynamic decision-making ability provided by human cognition, scientists explain. For this reason, future explorations place a premium on machine-learning and autonomy as well as man-machine interface wherein algorithms are advanced to support a human functioning in the role of command and control.
For instance, Air Force former Chief Scientist Dr. Gregory Zacharias often talked about these questions over the course of several interviews with Warrior Maven in recent years. As an expert specialist in the area of autonomy, he talked about a fast-approaching day wherein pilots will be able to control nearby drone “wing-men” from the cockpit of an F-35 or F-22. Such a technology, naturally, could enable forward operating drones to conduct reconnaissance missions, test enemy air defenses and even fire weapons – all while a pilot remains at a safer standoff distance acting in the role of command and control.