The most advanced fighter jet today, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is set to receive its first major technological upgrade. A clue about the proposed aircraft evolutions appeared on the Twitter account of General Mark D. Kelly, head of the US Air Force (USAF) Combat Air Command.
Published in late April, the post shows an illustration of three F-22s carrying slender pods and stealth fuel tanks on the wings and firing an unknown missile.
According to Air Force Magazine, the air-to-air missile would be the first glimpse of the AIM-260 JATM (Advanced Joint Tactical Missile), a new long-range missile that is designed by Raytheon and to be used by F/A-18E/F, F-35 and F-22 fighters.
The F-22’s stealth fuel tanks appeared in the USAF’s FY23 budget, while the pods are likely an electronic warfare system or an infrared search sensor.
Upgrading the Raptor via pods would be a more cost-effective way to adapt it to a new battlefield scenario. The Low Drag Tank and Pylon (LDTP) fuel tanks will replace the current common tanks offering less drag and maintaining the stealth capacity.
Testbed for NGAD
Another aspect suggested by the update, the greater operational autonomy, may have to do with operations in Pacific regions given the growth of the Chinese threat, whose PLAAF has the most advanced stealth fighter outside the US, the J-20.
The updated F-22 Raptor may also be used as a testbed for technologies that will be part of the NGAD, the USAF’s 6th generation fighter jet currently under development.
In service since 2005, after a long period of development, the Lockheed Martin fighter is expected to be retired around 2030.
In March, the USAF sent Congress in Washington a request for authorization to withdraw the 33 oldest Raptor fighters from service starting in 2023, claiming it would be too expensive (about $50 million per plane) to upgrade the models to the new configuration. If the proposal is approved, the Raptor fleet will be reduced to 153 aircraft.