The U.S. Air Force is laying the groundwork for the F-22 Raptor to serve another 42 years. That means the world’s first fifth-generation fighter, which entered service in 2006, could fly until 2060.
To do so, the Raptor must remain competitive with new Russian and Chinese fighters as well as rival jets still on the drawing board. It will use open architecture computer systems, new weapons, new sensors, and artificial intelligence to stay a step ahead of the competition.
According to Warrior Maven, the Air Force is preparing a list of upgrades for the F-22 that would make up a mid-life update, currently scheduled to begin in 2024. The updates would ensure that a fighter jet first proposed in the 1980s, will have the ability to serve out to 2060 if necessary. Warrior Maven says the service is emphasizing several features: killing enemy jets at farther ranges, more efficiently processing a flood of sensor output, dominating enemy aircraft into the near future, and finally, adding new sensors, weapons, and other capabilities to the Raptor as needed.
To that end, the Air Force wants to switch to a system of common IP protocol standards that would allow new electronics to integrate with the F-22’s computer system. This is the foundation of the upgrade, allowing the other hardware upgrades to take place. Other updates include a lightweight distributed architecture system (DAS), which a network of infrared cameras pointing in all directions to increase pilot situational awareness. The Air Force also wants new antennas that can broadcast and receive without ruining the jet’s stealthy profile, as well as for the F-22 to have the ability to electronically share data through the antennas with friendly air, land, and sea assets.
The artificial intelligence aspect is the most intriguing part of the future Raptor update. Think of a Raptor’s artificial intelligence as a software version of R2-D2 from Star Wars. The AI could process the constant stream of incoming data bombarding the pilot from a variety of sources, including the air-to-air radar, missile warning systems, the DAS, and even ground forces, other aircraft, and ships at sea. The AI could analyze the data and then prioritize, organize, and display the data for the pilot. Freed of the need to look at every new incoming data point and determine if it was useful, the pilot could develop and execute a plan faster than his opponents, not to mention just fly the jet.
Is it possible to future-proof the F-22 four decades in advance? Yes and no. Forty-two years is a long time, and new technologies could evolve that we can’t even imagine right now. The most important part of the upgrade is the “plug and play” computer system, allowing the Raptor to adapt to the changing times and incorporate these new technologies decades down the road. As long as the Raptor can adapt to meet the threat, it should have a fighting chance.
That said, the 2060 timeline isn’t a hard one. The Air Force’s F-22 replacement, Penetrating Counter Air, is expected to enter service in the 2030s. As long as the sixth-generation jet doesn’t take 30 years to fully replace the F-22, the Raptor fleet should be retired well before its 50th birthday.
Read more at Warrior Maven.