Key point: In order to keep the F-22 relevant and deadly, the Air Force is changing up how it fights.
(Washington, D.C.) The Air Force and Lockheed Martin are now arming the F-22 stealth fighter with more long-range precision attack technology, a wider targeting envelope or “field of regard” and new networking technology enabling improved, real-time “collaborative targeting” between aircraft.
The new weapons not only increase F-22 lethality, but are already shaping future Air Force combat tactics. As the service moves quickly to try to sustain air supremacy in today’s much more threatening environment, developers are adding, refining, testing and adjusting stealth fighter attack strategies and tactics to best leverage the F-22s technical improvements.
“Better weapons will expand the envelope of what is possible as the threat evolves. I expect the F-22 tactics and operational employment tactics will evolve along with these new weapons,” Lt. Gen. David Deptula (Ret), Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told Warrior.
The two new weapons, which have been under testing and development for several years now, are advanced variants of existing weapons - the AIM-9X air-to-air missile and the AIM 120-D. Upgraded variants of each, now being built into existing F-22s, have already flown in combat exercises. Lockheed developers tell Warrior that 14 F-22s have already been armed with the new weapons variants with more slated for next year.
“We are rolling these out across the fleet. We started the modifications and retrofit at Langley. We are doing these on site at the bases where the jets will roll immediately out off the flight line,” OJ Sanchez, F-22 Vice President, Lockheed, told Warrior.
Sanchez said Lockheed engineers have been incorporating feedback from F-22 pilots who flew the upgraded aircraft several months ago at an Air Force exercise called Red Flag. The margin of difference experienced during the exerciseis already leading Air Force strategist to adjust F-22 tactics to accommodate the added weapons capacity.
“The capability is proving to be valuable to them. Warfighters plan to expand tactics learned from that (Red Flag). They are using F-22s in ways they did not see,” Sanchez explained.
The new AIM-9X will shoot farther and reach a much larger targeting envelope for pilots. Working with a variety of helmets and display systems, Lockheed and Raytheon developers have added “off-boresight” targeting ability to the AIM-9X, enabling pilots to attack enemies from a wide range of new angles.
Raytheon AIM-9X weapons developers have told Warrior 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.
An ability to track and hit targets at different angles and longer ranges not only improves survivability but greatly helps attack maneuvering in combat. It further leverages some of the technical attributes unique to the F-22. The F-22 is engineered to fly high and fast, cruising above the speed of sound in a lower power setting than other aircraft. The aircraft is engineered for Supercruise, and ability to sustain supersonic speeds without burning excessive amounts of fuel with afterburners. The added technological attack capacity increases standoff ranges and enables the aircraft to destroy enemy targets from less vulnerable positions.
“The power of those engines, coupled with a thrust vectoring system that is part of the flight controls, give the F-22 a tremendous amount of maneuverability. It helps the aircraft get above the speed of sound and then sustain that speed. This provides a tactical advantage because minutes can matter getting from point A to point B,” Sanchez explained.
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.
Lockheed weapons developers say the new AIM-120D uses a better seeker and is more maneuverable with better countermeasures.
Interestingly, the tactical evolution of the F-22 is aligned with early concepts regarding F-22 missions, yet seems to extend it to new levels. A 1997 essay from Air War College Air University called “The F-22: The Right Fighter for the 21st Century?” -- seems to anticipate some of these developments by stating that speed, low radar signature and drag-reducing internal weapons bays enables the F-22 to penetrate enemy air defenses. Weapons technology and increased speed, according to the essay, “makes it much more difficult for enemy fighters to maneuver into weapons firing positions.” (Lt. Col Michael Costigan, USAF - at the time of the essay)
This tactical advantage is, in concept and practice, exactly what the new AIM-9X and AIM 120-D will bring to F-22 attack mission operations. In fact, the essay specifically cites an earlier variant of the AIM-9X; the new AIM-9X variant’s ability to attack on a much wider “threat envelope” makes the essay’s point about how F-22 technology makes it difficult “for enemy fighters to maneuver into firing position.”
“The F-22 has the capability to carry two JDAM1000 precision munitions internally, while still carrying a lethal load of radar-guided AIM-120C and heat-seeking AIM-9X air-to-air missiles for self-protections,” the essay states.
Also, the essay explains how F-22 tactics were further advanced following the Gulf War. `
“One late addition to the F-22’s requirements arose from lessons learned in the Gulf War. After establishing air su - periority, the F-15Cs could not perform air-to-ground missions and were relegated to performing air defense missions against a nonexistent threat,” the essay states.
Deptula, who served in the Air Force for years as an F-15 fighter pilot, says his experiences and concepts of operation were quite different than those emerging today.
“It is like when I was flying the F-15 in the late 70s, you learn to use much different tactics,” he explained.
As the Air Force and Lockheed Martin move forward with weapons envelope expansions and enhancements for the F-22, there is of course a commensurate need to upgrade software and its on-board sensors to adjust to emerging future threats, industry developers explained. Ultimately, this effort will lead the Air Force to draft up requirements for new F-22 sensors.
F-22 lethality is also getting vastly improved through integration of new two-way LINK 16 data link connectivity between aircraft, something which will help expedite real-time airborne “collaborative targeting.” Up until recently, the F-22 has been able to receive, but not share, data through LINK 16; sharing F-22 digital information has been done through voice radio.
“We’ve added a transmit capability. Now the pilot is able to quarterback and connect more with other platforms, which helps add more of a multi-domain operations capability,” Sanchez explained.
Having a digital ability to transmit fast-changing, combat relevant targeting information from an F-22 cockpit - without needing voice radios - lessens the risk associated with more “jammable” or “hackable” communications.
The technical steps forward are also helping to network F-22s and F-35s together in war, something which further enables the Pentagon’s plan to fly the two stealth aircraft together in a complimentary way; the F-35 was specifically engineered to support the F-22 in combat. In fact the F-35 and F-22 have already conducted operations together in the CENTCOM region.
“By sharing battlespace information, the F-22 and F-35 system of systems connectivity greatly improves the kill chain,” Sanchez explained.
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, allowing better target identification.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.
Along with its SuperCruise technology, 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.
It also uses what’s called a radar-warning receiver – a technology with an updateable database called “mission data files” designed to recognize a wide-range of enemy fighters, much like the F-35.
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; the 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 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.
For the long term, given that the Air Force plans to fly the F-22 well into the 2060s, these weapons upgrades are engineered to build the technical foundation needed to help integrate a new generation of air-to-air missiles as they emerge in coming years.
This article by Kris Osborn originally appeared in WarriorMaven in 2020.
Kris Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.