The U.S. Air Force is now integrating new weapons onto 143 F-22s to massively expand their target envelope, air-to-air attack range and lock-on-launch precision -- to preserve the widely held belief that the stealth fighter is the most advanced and dominant air-to-air fighter ever to exist.
F-22s will be able to track and destroy enemy targets flying behind them, hit air targets with much greater force, precision and destructive power and include new GPS jam-resistant technologies, developers explain.
The actual integration of the new, upgraded weapons -- which include the AIM-9X and AIM-120D missiles -- begins this May, according to the 2018 Air Force Annual Acquisition Report. The weapons expansion is part of an ongoing, multi-year upgrade called 3.2B during which the weapons improvements were prototyped, tested, demonstrated and validated. Now, the Air Force Report says - they are operational and ready for war.
*“*The F-22 Increment 3.2B program upgrades the F-22A with the latest air-to-air weaponry (AIM-9X and AIM-120D), adds additional electronic protection techniques to guard against emerging threats and improves the network-centric warfare capabilities of the aircraft,” the Air Force annual acquisition report states.
The weapons integration will take place at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, Nellis AFB, Nevada and Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
“This strategy ensures minimal downtime and returns the upgraded jets to the warfighter at the fastest rate possible,” the Air Force report states.
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 developers have added “off-boresight” targeting ability enabling pilots to attack enemies from a wide range of new angles.
“It is a much more agile missile with an improved seeker and a better field of regard. You can shoot over your shoulder. If enemies get behind me in a close-in fight, I have the right targeting on the plane to shoot them,” Ken Merchant, Vice President, F-22, Lockheed, told Warrior Maven in an interview last year. Merchant, who spoke to Warrior during an earlier developmental phase of the program, was familiar with how the new weapon will impact F-22 lethality.
Raytheon AIM-9X weapons developers have told Warrior that the Block II 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. It uses an imaging infrared focal plane array go give it its “off-boresight” targeting ability. Utilizing a Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System, or a new generation of pilot sights, a pilot can control the AIM-9X missile by looking at a target.
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.
“The new AIM-120D uses a better seeker and is more maneuverable with better countermeasures,” Merchant said.
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 onboard 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, Lockheed developers said.
The acquisition report also explains that F-22 lethality is also getting vastly improved through the integration of new two-way LINK 16 data link connectivity between aircraft, something which will help expedite real-time airborne “collaborative targeting.”
“We have had LINK 16 receive, but we have not been able to share what is on the Raptor digitally. We have been doing it all through voice,” Merchant said.
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 Air Force has also been working with Lockheed to sustain and renew the stealth coating material on the F-22.
In 2017, the Air Force contracted Lockheed Martin to perform essential maintenance to the F-22's low-observable stealth coating. Lockheed Martin completed the first F-22 Raptor at the company's Inlet Coating Repair Speedline, a company statement at the time 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," a Lockheed statement at the time said.
While many details of its particular composition are, naturally, not available for security reasons, the coating contains special Radar Absorbing Materials designed to “keep radio waves from returning to the receiver.” This prevents enemy radar from receiving any kind of “rendering” of the aircraft, according to a 2015 essay called the “Feasibility Study of a Stealth Missile for Military Application,” from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
“RAM creates electromagnetic interference that allows for the absorption of many frequencies of electromagnetic waves which are transmitted by radar,” the essay writes (Javan A. Roussel).
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.
The F-22 is also known for its “supercruise” technology which enables the fighter to reach speeds of Mach 1.5 without needing to turn on its afterburners. This enables the fighter to travel faster and farther on less fuel, a scenario which expands its time for combat missions.
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.
“Our intent is to make sure we keep our first look, first shot, first kill mantra,” Merchant said.