The U.S. Air Force Wants to Keep the F-22 Flying Into the 2060s
Stealth fighters will take the F-15C's place as a new jet enters service mid-century
The U.S. Air Force is planning to keep the F-22A Raptor in service though 2060. To that end, the service is funding a series of upgrades that will keep the powerful fifth-generation air superiority fighter relevant for decades to come. Indeed, the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2018 budget request is a down payment towards that goal.
“We plan to retain the F-22 until the 2060 timeframe, meaning a sustained effort is required to counter advancing threats that specifically target its capabilities. The FY18 budget includes $624.5 million in RDT&E and $398.5 million in procurement towards this goal,” Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, military deputy to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, and Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, deputy chief of staff for plans, programs and requirements, wrote in their written testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on June 7.
As Tom McIntyre, a program analyst for F-22 requirements at Air Combat Command, told me earlier, while the year 2060 came as a surprise to the Raptor community, the airframe will be structurally sound until at least that time.
“That came somewhat as a surprise to us,” McIntyre said. “We were not expecting 2060, but the F-22 program has a very robust structural integrity program known as ASIP [aircraft structural integrity program].”
The Raptor’s airframe is incredibly robust due to the Air Force’s extreme requirements for the design during the closing years of the Cold War. Though the F-22 was designed with an 8,000-hour airframe life, real life-flying experience shows that the jet can be safely flown without modifications out to 12,000 hours at the low-end and as many as 15,000 hours on the high-end.
“Way back in the late ’80s and early ’90s when we designed the F-22, we had about 10 design missions that we built the structure of the aircraft around,” McIntyre said.
“That’s what during EMD [engineering, manufacturing, development] we did the full scale testing on against those missions. We came to find out we have not been flying the Raptor nearly as hard as those design missions nor as what we found out during the structural testing, so actually the airframe itself—without any service life extension program—is good out to approximately 2060.”
Nor is corrosion a factor as has been the case on the U.S. Navy’s F/A-18 Hornets. Most of the issues that the Air Force found on the Raptor were related to galvanic corrosion due to the aircraft’s stealth material. But none of the corrosion was on the critical airframe structures of the aircraft, McIntyre noted.
In any case, the Air Force is taking action—which is to replace a particular conductive stealth coating—to eliminate the corrosion problem on the Raptor. “Those corrective actions are currently being done at the depot at Hill Air Force Base,” McIntyre said.
“We’re also adding modifications to avoid future corrosion and all of those mods should be completed about mid-2020.”
An F-22 Raptor under a sun shelter at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. in June 2017. U.S. Air Force photo
Moreover, the Air Force is auditing the Sierra Army Depot to make sure that the F-22 manufacturing tooling is secure. The audit is 85 percent complete and thus far all of the tooling has been found. Earlier, some Air Force officials had expressed concerns that the equipment had been misplaced—however, those concerns were unfounded, as it turns out.
“When you store 40,000 tools in a bunch of Connexes, it’s probably like my garage, I know something is out in it, but it takes me a while sometimes to find it,” McIntyre said. “They’ve found no issues with finding any of the tooling.”
As for restarting the F-22 production line, that is a non-starter for the Air Force.
“The Air Force has no plans to restart the F-22 production line because it wouldn’t make economic or operational sense to do so,” Maj. Carrie Kessler, a spokeswoman for Air Combat Command said.
The Raptor in 2060
Given that the F-22 airframe will easily make it to 2060, the main question centers on what the Air Force can do to keep the Raptor tactically relevant into the later part of the 21st century. The Air Force does not yet have an answer to that question, but it does have a plan to keep the Raptor relevant to the 2030s.
“We don’t have a crystal ball that goes out to 2060,” McIntyre said.
“Our organization is working the requirements for the F-22 to keep it operationally relevant for obtaining and maintaining air superiority between now and 2030.”
Potential adversaries such as Russia and China are designing measures to defeat the Raptor and American air superiority writ large. What might happen is that the F-22 would partner with a new fighter, the sixth-generation Penetrating Counter Air [PCA], in a teaming arrangement similar to today’s partnership between fourth and fifth-generation aircraft.
The Raptor would take the place of the F-15C Eagle as the lower-tier of a high-low mix with the PCA forming the upper-tier.
“When the PCA comes online, it will be designed to operate and be interoperable with fifth-generation aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35,” McIntyre said.
“There will come a time whether it is 2030, 2040 or 2050 when the F-22 will be kind of like a fourth-generation aircraft today.”
Nonetheless, based on the threats the Air Force sees becoming operational in 2019-2020, the service is looking at planning future upgrades for the F-22—however those discussions are classified.
“Following those, at some point in time, because the Raptor is going to be around a long time, we are looking at something that is tentatively known as mid-life update.”
That mid-life upgrade will likely mean new computer hardware and new avionics such as modernized radars and antennas.
“Sometime between 2025 and 2030 we’re going to have to take a serious look at the supportability of some of the systems onboard the Raptor and upgrading those,” McIntyre said.
“We’re currently in the very early stage of looking at that.”
The Air Force is investing in keeping the Raptor ready for near term threats too. Increment 3.2B—which adds full integration of the AIM-9X Sidewinder and the AIM-120D AMRAAM and a host of other upgrades—will be entering operational testing this summer before it starts to be fielded in fiscal year 2019. There is also a software only modification called Update 6 which will be fielded simultaneously that modernizes the Raptor’s cryptography, McIntyre said.
A more significant modernization effort after Update 6 is the Raptor’s TACLink-16 effort that will add Link-16 transmit capability to the F-22 in 2021. The Air Force—after resisting incorporating the omni-directional Link-16 datalink for years—is finally adding a transmit function to the Raptor. The reason is that as the service has gained more experience in operating the stealth aircraft, it has learned many operational lessons.
“As we are finding out, the F-22 overall from a tactical employment standpoint is not afraid of operating with Link-16 transmit on almost all the time,” McIntyre said.
“Over time as we have learned more about the aircraft, the smart men and women flying it have developed tactics and found that some of our early concerns with Link-16 transmit were unfounded.”
The Air Force had considered much newer and much more capable datalinks for the Raptor such as the F-35’s Multi-Function Advanced Datalink and the Navy’s high-speed, high-bandwidth Tactical Targeting Network Technologies, but McIntyre said that he is not the expert on that particular aspect of the Raptor program and, thus, is not comfortable discussing that decision. But he did discuss why the Air Force is not relying only on the Talon HATE datalink pod on the F-15C to retransmit information from the Raptor to the rest of the fleet.
“That is a capability that is only going to be fielded on a very limited number of F-15 aircraft,” McIntyre said.
“Unless you’re operating with a very limited number of F-15 aircraft you would not be able to share the tactical picture the F-22 is able to gather with its sensors.”
But the TACLink-16 program includes more than just the addition of the new data-link capability. The Air Force intends to fill the remaining empty avionics bays onboard the Raptor—the jet has three bays in total—with an open mission systems architecture as the foundation for future F-22 upgrades.
“The OMS is an enabler for all future F-22 modernization,” McIntyre said.
“You can kind of think of it—it’s grossly oversimplified—like it’s an iPhone that you can add applications to.”
Immediately following the TACLink project is TACMAN—or Tactical Mandates—which features the Pentagon’s mandatory Mode 5 Identification, Friend or Foe upgrade for both the interrogation and transmission functions. The upgrade also features advanced combat identification and electronic protection features, McIntyre said.
“That will follow in 2022, so you see we kinda got an bang, bang right after TACLink-16 with TACMAN,” McIntyre said.
Another piece of good news for Raptor pilots—which is enabled by OMS—is that the F-22 will finally receive a helmet–mounted cueing systems to exploit the outer edges of the AIM-9X weapons employment zone. Development and integration of the HMCS are scheduled to start next year in 2018. The new system will be fielded in 2021 if all goes as planned. The Air Force has not picked which HMCS it will choose yet, but there should be down selection in the next year or so, McIntyre said.
“The key enabler is the OMS,” McIntyre said.
With the addition of the HMCS, the Raptor will almost be the aircraft that was originally promised to the Air Force when the Advanced Tactical Fighter program was awarded to Lockheed so many years ago.