Super Raptor: New tech makes F-22 deadlier & F-35 a bit less special
First operational in 2005, the F-22 is a multi-role fighter designed with stealth technology to evade enemy radar detection and speeds able to reach Mach 2 with what is called “super-cruise” capability. Supercruise is the ability to cruise at supersonic airspeeds such as 1.5 Mach without needing afterburner, a capability attributed to the engine thrust and aerodynamic configuration of the F-22.
The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, the world’s first ever fifth-generation fighter, is still widely considered to be not only a superior dogfighter to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter but likely, the most capable air superiority fighter on the planet. Its unique combination of stealth characteristics, speed, and maneuverability set it apart from acrobatic fourth-generation fighters and stealthy fifth-generation platforms alike, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.
While the F-35 may not be able to a match its older sibling in speed or maneuverability, Lockheed developers believe it retains its place as the world’s most capable aircraft thanks to its improved stealth and its targeting system’s massive field of view. Further, the F-35 was purpose-built to serve as a data hub, absorbing targeting information from any number of assets and using it to develop what may be the most robust level of battlefield awareness any fighter pilot has ever had.
The F-35’s purpose isn’t limited to air-interception but also includes a wide variety of roles. If it founds itself facing off against particularly squirrelly fighters like Russia’s Su-35 or China’s J-20 (based on stolen F-22 designs), it would likely engage the enemy aircraft before they ever knew it was nearby–and if it couldn’t, it would bug out to avoid a head to head conflict.
The Air Force F-22 has been refining it dogfighting skills, assessing technical upgrades and testing air to air combat tactics during a recent Red Flag exercise in Nevada – designed to improve attack maneuvers and solidify emerging communications technologies and sensors, service officials said.
Now, however, the U.S. Air Force is looking to bridge that operational gap between the F-22’s nimble quickness and the F-35’s super-computing stealthiness. A new slew of offensive weapons and system upgrades now promise to offer the F-22 a broader targeting envelope and greater battlefield awareness, all while retaining the advantage in speed and mobility.
Two new weapons purpose built for long range engagements (the AIM-9X air-to-air missile and the AIM 120-D), a new two-way data link apparatus that will allow for “collaborative targeting,” and sensor upgrades now promise to bridge some of the gaps between the F-35’s brains and the F-22’s brawn, and potentially propel the Raptor even further ahead of its competition.
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Soon, F-22s will be able to identify and target enemy aircraft using data provided by any number of airborne, ground-based, and satellite assets long before the bad guys are even aware of their presence. They could engage other planes from beyond the horizon, or use their superior speed to close with an intercept if need be. While dog fights might make for good movies, when it comes to actual air-to-air engagements, shooting the enemy down before he’s even aware of your presence is always the preferred outcome.
According to Ken Merchant, Lockheed’s vice president for F-22 operations, these upgrades will combine into something greater than the sum of their parts, offering the F-22 unprecedented targeting ability in all engagements. In fact, the combination of advanced targeting systems and the new AIM-9X may even give the Raptor the ability to shoot down planes that are on its tail.
“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,” he told Warrior Maven this week.
Although modern weapons such as long-range air-to-air missiles, and the lack of near-peer warfare in recent years, means dogfighting itself is less likely these days. However, as the service prepares for future contingencies against technologically advanced adversaries – maintaining a need to dogfight is of great significance. For instance, the emerging Chinese J-10 and Russian 5th Gen PAK-50 clearly underscore the importance of this.
Advanced dogfighting ability 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.
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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.
Connectivity with air and ground combat assets, drawing upon emerging data-link technology, has been a key part of the exercise as the Air Force strengthens efforts to work with other services on cross-domain fires operations.
The Air Force plans to actualize key aspects of this with, for instance, LINK 16 upgrades to the F-22 that enable it to improve data-sharing with the F-35 and 4th-generation aircraft in real-time in combat.
“The F-22 program is developing enhanced “5th-to-5th” generation and “5th-to-4th” generation aircraft communications via the TACLink 16 program,” Capt. Emily Grabowski, Air Force Spokeswoman, told Warrior Maven.
Grabowski added that this program includes hardware and software modifications to field LINK 16 transmit on the F-22. While not eliminating the need for voice communication, transmitting and receiving via LINK 16 datalinks can expedite data- and video-sharing, target coordination and more secure non-voice connectivity.“If somebody broke our encryption they could listen to our conversation. LINK 16 transit allows us to share our screen without having any voice pass,” Ken Merchant, Vice President, F-22 Programs, Lockheed, told Warrior Maven in an interview.
Merchant added that F-35-F-22 LINK 16 connectivity should be operational by 2020.
The F-22 is built with two Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 turbofan engines with afterburners, Air Force statements said. The aircraft has a 44-foot wingspan and a maximum take-off weight of more than 83,000 pounds.