On December 14, 2005 the Commander of Air Combat Command (COMACC), General Ronald Keys declared the F-22A Raptor had reached Initial Operational Capability (IOC). In honor of its tenth birthday I searched for the perfect gift for the Raptor; but, what do you get for a ten year old who seemingly has everything?
It would be easy to say “more siblings,” but let’s be honest: the Raptor production line is highly unlikely to be re-opened, sad as it is. The F-22 already has stealth, supercruise, eye-watering maneuverability, sensor fusion, and a proven record in combat. It seems like a pretty spoiled pre-teen to me.
Well, like any ten year old, the jet really needs new toys! The F-22 is already scheduled to receive the Increment 3.2B upgrade over the next five years, which will provide improved geolocation and electronic protection and the ability to employ the next evolution of US air-to-air missiles (AAMs).
While the AIM-120D Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) and the AIM-9X Sidewinder are nice, but to truly stay ahead of the other kids on the 5th-Generation playground (the Chinese J-20/J-31 and the Russian-Indian PAK-FA), the Raptor needs a new generation of toys: upgraded AAMs, new air-to-ground weapons, and improved avionics–to include a helmet-mounted display (HMD), a datalink that allows information sharing with all US and coalition aircraft, and an infrared search and track (IRST) system.
Primary among the Raptor’s needs is a new, long-range AAM, a replacement for the AIM-120. Long thought by US fighter pilots to be far superior to any adversary missile, the AMRAAM is now at risk of being outperformed by emerging AAM technology, chief among them the Chinese PL-15. On September 15 of this year, the Chinese successfully test fired this developmental, ramjet-powered missile and destroyed an airborne target drone.
According to published reports, the PL-15 exceeds the range of its predecessor, the PL-12, which boasts a maximum range of over 100km. A missile that can kill an adversary from 60 miles away presents a deadly threat to all US fighter platforms. No less an authority than the current COMACC, General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle has recognized the threat posed by the ultra long-range PL-15.
At this fall’s Air Force Association conference, General Carlisle pointed out the AMRAAM’s range disadvantage vis-a-vis the PL-15 and declared “out-sticking” the PL-15 was a high priority for the US Air Force. Rapid development, production and deployment of a longer-range successor to the AIM-120D, or a completely new long-range AAM should be a national priority. Ensuring the Raptor has this new toy to play with in its teens and beyond is critical to the aircraft maintaining its unquestioned superiority over all other fighter aircraft.
The Raptor has become much more than the air-to-air fighter is was originally designed to be; it has been provided true multi-role capabilities. In 2012, the F-22 fleet began to receive the Increment 3.1 Enhanced Air Dominance upgrade which gave the aircraft an improved capability to geolocate ground radars, added a synthetic aperture radar imagery mode and an electronic attack mode for the APG-77 radar. It also allows the Raptor to carry up to eight GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs) which could be dropped against up to four targets.
The Department of Defense has claimed the Raptor uses these capabilities to great effect in Operation Inherent Resolve, the campaign against Daesh in Syria and Iraq; however, much like its air-to-air armament, the Raptor needs new air-to-ground toys. The F-22’s mud-moving arsenal, which currently consists of the 1,000-pound GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and the SDB, may not be able survive an attack on modern long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAM) systems, such as the S-400/SA-21 Growler. Russia claims the Growler has a greater than 70% single-shot probability of kill against precision-guided munitions.
The Raptor needs revolutionary air-to-ground weapons able to defeat modern air defenses. One option is the much talked about, but as yet unfunded, Counter-Electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile (CHAMP). This missile, which has had at least one successful test, is supposed to disable electronic equipment with bursts of high-frequency electromagnetic energy. This is the type of revolutionary new technology that would be the perfect fit for a stealthy F-22 on a mission to destroy high-value targets (HVTs), and would be a welcome addition to the Raptor’s arsenal.
Finally, the Raptor could use a new set of sensors designed to improve its employment of all these new weapons discussed above. Most notably, Raptor pilots still lack a helmet-mounted cueing system, which would allow them to take full advantage of the astounding within visual range (WVR) capabilities of the AIM-9X, and they are not scheduled to receive HMDs until 2020 at the earliest.
In addition to a helmet-counted cueing system, an infrared cueing system is profoundly missed on the F-22. An IRST, deployed en masse on Russian and Chinese fighters as well as many US and European fighters, would provide the Raptor with the capability to passively detect adversary fighters at a range of up to 50 kilometers. In addition to these cueing systems, the US and coalition air forces are desperate to receive the astonishing situational awareness of the Raptor.
Currently, the F-22 does not have the capability to pass its sensor data on Link-16, denying other platforms the ability to use Raptor’s battlespace information. One possible solution would be to retrofit the Raptor with the Multifunction Advanced Datalink (MADL), which would allow the F-22 to share data with the F-35 and the B-2. These toys would allow not only the Raptor to be more lethal and more survivable, but also other aircraft in a force package with the F-22.
The Raptor has had an eventful first ten years of life. Who could forget the Raptor’s embarrassing Y2K-like glitch when it first tried (unsuccessfully) to cross the International Date Line in 2007? It took nearly nine years before the Raptor was allowed to participate in actual combat operations. But now the F-22 has hit its stride, Air Force and civilian leaders are effusive in their praise for the work the Raptor is doing in the skies over Syria.
There is little doubt that the Raptor is the most advanced and deadly fighter aircraft in the world. But much like a child, the Raptor needs to be nurtured and equipped with the tools necessary to be successful later in life. As the Raptor enters its second decade of operational service with the US Air Force, it is absolutely vital the nation continues to equip this fighter with the newest goodies: weapons and sensors that will optimize the capability of the aircraft for decades to come.
Since the Vietnam War, the US Air Force has refused to accept a fair fight, instead demanding overwhelming technical superiority over potential adversaries. The Raptor is the ultimate expression of this desire to maintain technological superiority over the competition. However, nations such as Russia and China are developing new 5th-Generation fighters for their services and the Raptor’s technological superiority is no longer guaranteed.
The only way to maintain the Air Dominance provided by the F-22, and expected by Air Force and national leaders is to arm it with revolutionary new capabilities.