The F-22 Raptor, the U.S. Air Force’s current “strongest combat capability,” will improve considerably. From external pods and new missiles to more robust electronic warfare capabilities, the U.S. military expects the changes to help the F-22 maintain a competitive edge.
Some details of the upgrade plan were disclosed in the U.S. Air Force’s 2023 budget not long ago. At the end of April, Admiral Mark Kelly, commander of the U.S. Air Combat Command, posted a concept map on social media, showing for the first time what the improved Raptor would look like. Also of interest is the subtle link between the F-22 and the U.S. military’s next-generation air superiority fighter (NGAD).
The external pods beneath the F-22’s wings are most striking in this computer-generated image. An analysis article published on the Italian “aviator” website stated that someone saw the F-22 lift-off test with the new pod near the U.S. Air Force No. 42 factory in California at the beginning of this year. The pod has a shape that reduces radar echoes, and it’s unclear what systems are installed inside it. Analysts believe it may be an electronic warfare pod explicitly developed for the F-22.
As the world’s earliest stealth fighter, the F-22’s electronic warfare capability once led the world. However, considering the rapid development of technology in recent years, the U.S. military would rather sacrifice part of the aircraft’s maneuverability and stealth capabilities and ensure that it can effectively conduct electronic countermeasures. The pod serves as a relatively simple, inexpensive vehicle for the rapid integration of new functionality into the aircraft.
The pod, which hangs on the outside of the wing, appears to have detection windows, suggesting it may contain some infrared search and track system. The IRST was standard on the F-22 at the drawing stage but was dropped during subsequent development. Now, the U.S. military is re-seeking corresponding functions for the aircraft. “The F-22 program office is seeking hardware and software solutions that provide long-range infrared sensing and object detection capabilities,” the Air Force magazine said, citing an official document. Suppose the contractor develops a product that meets the requirements. In that case, the military will evaluate to see if it can be carried on a fighter jet.”
Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the F-22, has proposed that it is technically challenging to install an internal IRST on the F-22. This is mainly because adding an optoelectronic targeting system similar to the F-35 equipment inside the fuselage requires a severe modification to the fuselage. Therefore, the use of external pods has become a more cost-effective option.
The U.S. Air Force would upgrade the F-22’s multiple capabilities in stages, involving “network intrusion detection and prevention, predictive maintenance, sensor fusion, improved radar, pilot assistance technology, navigation equipment to replace GPS, combat identification,” etc. One of the more significant upgrades is the helmet-mounted display (HMD). The U.S. military had previously considered matching the “Joint Helmet Indication System” common to other models with the F-22. Still, it fell through due to compatibility issues. Since then, the U.S. military has begun to develop a dedicated HMD system code-named “Scorpion,” but until the official news was made public, the project’s progress was still kept secret.
Another unique piece of equipment in the concept map is the new external drop tank. Officially known as the “Low Drag Tank and Pylon” (LDTP), it is more aerodynamic than the current drop tank. According to the U.S. military’s 2023 budget document, LDTP is critical to the F-22’s ability to maintain air superiority and respond to emerging threats in joint operations. The U.S. military believes that, considering the advancement of other countries’ detection capabilities and the expansion of the air engagement range, in future operations, it is essential to use the external fuel tank to provide the “Raptor” with a more extended range, thereby ensuring the survivability of the U.S. military’s aerial refueling platform.
The F-22’s LDTP design is advanced, providing the carrier aircraft with more remarkable persistence while maintaining combat capability. The shape of the fuel tank can reduce drag and ensure that the carrier aircraft can still fly at supersonic speed on the premise of increasing the range.
“The Aviator” commented that the U.S. Air Force’s emphasis on long-range and low detectability is not surprising. The United States tries to ensure strategic advantages over other military powers with stealth fighters that can limit the U.S. military in action. U.S. air combat platforms require more excellent operational range and more extended airtime. In this context, external fuel tanks that do not overly affect stealth capabilities will benefit the U.S. military.
The last bright spot in the concept map is an air-to-air missile of an unknown model. Foreign media speculate that this may be a highly classified AIM-260 missile. So far, there has been very little official information about this weapon. The AIM-260, also known as the “Joint Advanced Tactical Missile,” has been intensifying research and development since 2017. The new long-range air-to-air missile aims to replace the current AIM-120 missile and prevent U.S. fighter jets from being overtaken by potential adversaries in their line-of-sight air combat capabilities.
The previously exposed technical parameters show that the size of the AIM-260 missile is the same as that of the AIM-120, but the range is longer.
Additionally, the Air Force’s budget document is the first to link the F-22’s upgrade to the next-generation fighter, the GAD. According to the plan, the “Raptor” will act as a testbed for new technologies. As mentioned in the budget document, it will become more robust: “The F-22 will benefit from the transfer of technology based on the NGAD program, involving weapons system.