World’s best fighter jet gets an upgrade for war against China

World’s best fighter jet gets an upgrade for war against China

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The US Air Force’s Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor stealth fighter has gotten a major upgrade as the iconic warplane nears its third decade of front-line service and retirement.

The F-22 is the most powerful and sophisticated fighter in the world, but it has its weaknesses. Keenly aware of the F-22’s limitations – especially with regard to range – the Air Force is hastening the twin-engine, single-seat jet to an early demise. At the same time, the flying branch is spending billions of dollars to ensure that once the Raptor bows out, something even better – a radar-evading jet without the F-22’s main problems – is ready to take its place.

An F-22 launches a Sidewinder missile from an internal weapons bay. Carrying weapons internally is necessary to maintain low visibility on radar – USAF Handout/Reuters

Many observers of American air power bemoan the Raptor’s planned early end, fewer than 30 years after the type deployed on its first front-line operation. It’s not unusual for a modern American fighter – for instance the Lockheed Martin F-16 or Boeing F-15 – to fly for 40 years or longer. With upgrades, of course.

That the Air Force is so eager to replace its best fighter says a lot about how, and where, USAF leaders anticipate future wars will play out. Specifically, at great distances over the vast western Pacific Ocean during, say, a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

The American air arm is betting that the warplane it’s designing to supplant the F-22 will be much better-suited for that kind of conflict. And it’s probably right.

The $300-million-a-copy F-22 had a long gestation. It grew out of the Advanced Tactical Fighter initiative in the 1980s, first flew in demonstrator form in 1990, completed development in 2005, first deployed, to Japan, in 2006 and finished production – of just 195 planes – in 2012. The type fired its first shots in anger during the air campaign versus Islamic State in 2014. Today, it routinely deploys to the Pacific region to deter China, and Europe to deter Russia.

Despite its futuristic, hard-to-detect shape and blistering performance – unusually, it can “supercruise” at twice the speed of sound without igniting its fuel-thirsty afterburners – in its bones, the F-22 is a Cold War jet. Lockheed designed it to battle the Soviet Union from bases in Europe, meaning poor endurance wasn’t really an issue. An F-22 can range just 600 miles or so on internal fuel: plenty far enough to fight over Germany and Poland.

The problem is, that range doesn’t get you very far over the vast Pacific. The Pentagon’s closest air base for a war over Taiwan, Kadena in Japan, is 450 miles away. If Kadena gets knocked out by Chinese missiles, the next closest major base – Misawa, also in Japan – is 1,400 miles away.

It’s not for no reason that, in planning for an air war over Taiwan, USAF officers increasingly disregard the F-22s and other fighters and instead calculate optimal ways for the service’s long-range heavy bombers to engage a Chinese invasion force.

And it’s for that same reason that, last year, USAF leaders announced they wanted to retire the combat-capable fleet of around 150 of the newest F-22s over a few years starting in 2030, while grounding the 30 or so older training models as early as next year and shifting pilot-instruction to the newer jets.

Cutting short the F-22’s career could save billions of dollars that would help the Air Force speed up development and production of the secretive new Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter. Early test models of the NGAD jet flew as long ago as 2020, but we still don’t know what it looks like or what it can do.

What we do know is that the Air Force expects the new plane to exceed the F-22’s stealth and sensor capabilities and – more importantly – to double its range. The NGAD fighter is a fighter for war with China, much more than the F-22 ever was.

But it won’t come cheap. The Air Force expects to spend $5 billion a year for the next four years just to complete development – and billions more to produce jets starting around 2030. In light of the high cost, no one should be surprised if the NGAD program gets delayed.

The Air Force is already bracing for it. Which is why, years ago, it paid to develop a pair of critical new add-ons that should help keep the Raptor relevant for a few more years: special underwing fuel tanks – shaped to minimize their radar signature – that could add hundreds of miles to the F-22’s range, as well as new pods for highly-sensitive infrared sensors that allow an F-22 to detect targets without turning on its radar and potentially giving away its own position.

The new tanks and sensor pods first appeared in public on an F-22 in a grainy photo, apparently from an Air Force test range, that circulated last week.

The extra gas is the most critical for an air war with China. They make long flights over the open water a little more feasible for the otherwise short-ranged Raptors. With new fuel tanks under the F-22’s wing, the NGAD jet becomes a little less urgent for the Air Force.

Emphasis on little. The F-22’s poor endurance was always its greatest weakness. Replacing the jet, as fast as possible, is – and should be – a top priority for the world’s leading air force.

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