Raptor thrills, but could face Pentagon chill
Appearing for one day only, the F-22 Raptor thrilled the Farnborough crowd yesterday with a majestic display of power and agility. Now the Raptor heads home to join the rest of its unit at Langley, Virginia, as the F-22 fleet gathers experience and capability.
Orders for the F-22 stand at 183, and to date Lockheed Martin has delivered 122. Seventeen of the most recent machines have proven to be “zero-defect” aircraft, highlighting an improvement in quality at a time when Lockheed Martin and its suppliers have achieved a 16-percent reduction in build hours per unit, following a 20-percent reduction the year before.
However, the end of the line could be looming. Talk of further production orders has been buzzing around Washington, although with an incoming administration it would probably be February before any decision is made. But October 31 this year is the deadline by which Lockheed Martin must decide on ordering the longest-lead items for additional aircraft. Any decision for more Raptors taken beyond that date would inevitably carry some cost implications and incur a gap in deliveries.
Air Force Raptors
Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force is forging ahead with fielding the Raptor. The 1st Fighter Wing at Langley AFB, Virginia, has achieved full operational capability this year, while the 3rd Wing at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, has 32 aircraft of its allotted 40. The first two Raptors have joined the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, to begin training, with the main batch of production deliveries beginning this October. The last F-22s arrive at Holloman in 2010, by which time the wing at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, begins equipment.
Recently the Air Force stood up the F-22 Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB to teach and evaluate advanced combat tactics. Aircraft from both the 1st and 3rd Wings have participated in several exercises, with outstanding results, and have achieved 100 percent rates in the Combat Archer air-to-air and Combat Hammer air-to-ground live weapon campaigns.
The Raptor fleet has flown over 32,500 sorties for over 47,200 flight hours. Nearly 22,000 hours are budgeted for 2008. The training effort at Tyndall AFB, Florida, will achieve a major milestone in October when the first B-course students graduate. They are “first-tourists” assigned to the F-22 fresh out of flight-school. The number of Raptor pilots trained by the Air Force currently stands at 196.
As the service gets used to its new fighter, maintenance figures are improving. The current mission-capable rate of 70 percent is on the increase, while the current mean time between maintenance now stands at 2.24 hours. The Raptor team is working hard to achieve better than a contractually-obliged 3-hour MTBM by the time the fleet reaches 100,000 flight hours.
Development of the Raptor continues with the integration of software changes and new equipment. The test fleet is working on Increment 3.1, which expands the aircraft’s air-to-ground repertoire with the Small Diameter Bomb, of which eight can be carried alongside two AMRAAMs in the main weapons bays. On Monday this week a Raptor released an SDB at supersonic speed for the first time. Increment 3.1 also allows the radar to be used in synthetic aperture mode to create high-resolution targeting maps.
Increment 3.2 testing is also under way, this iteration improving the air-to-air capability. Key elements are the integration of the AIM-9X in place of the current AIM-9M Sidewinder, and AIM-120D AMRAAM to supersede the AIM-120C. Increment 3.2 is scheduled to be fielded in the 2012/13 timeframe.
One area where the F-22 has drawn criticism is in its inability to datalink outside the community. The current Intra-Flight Datalink allows Raptors to share full air pictures and other information, but only with each other. The superior air picture available to the F-22’s radar isn’t available to other aircraft types.
Within the modernization plan is a new datalink that will allow F-22s to share data with other U.S. Air Force stealth types, namely the B-2 and F-35. Beyond that, Increment 3.3 might include a datalink that allows the Raptor to talk “outside the anti-access bubble,” enabling it to communicate with non-stealth U.S. and coalition aircraft.