Newly integrated U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor weapons are now operational, bringing expanded air-to-air and air-to-ground attack technology to the stealth fighter following the production of a multi-year software upgrade program intended to prepare the jet for a major great-power war.
Called Increment 3.2B, the upgrade includes AIM-120D and AIM-9X air-to-air missiles and brings improved surface strike technology. The software upgrades, which have been underway for many years, are now ready for war. “Air Combat Command authorized the release and fielding of the F-22 Update 6 Operational Flight Program for incorporation into Increment 3.2B,” a statement from F-22-maker Lockheed Martin read.
The weapons improvements arm F-22s with AIM-9X Block 2, an adaptation that builds upon the existing Block 1. Raytheon AIM-9X weapons developers explain that the Block 2 variant adds a redesigned fuze and a digital ignition safety device that enhances ground handling and in-flight safety. Block 2 also features updated electronics that enable significant enhancements, including lock-on-after-launch capability using a new weapon data-link to support beyond visual range engagements, a Raytheon statement said.
Another part of the weapons upgrade includes engineering the F-22 to fire the AIM-120D, a beyond visual range Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), designed for all-weather day-and-night attacks; it is a “fire and forget” missile with active transmit radar guidance, Raytheon data states.
Interestingly, Update 6 is primarily focused on software to improve both weapons and radar effectiveness, while making few changes to the hardware, John Losinger, Lockheed Martin F-22 spokesman, told Warrior Maven.
While some of the technical details associated with the F-22 weapons enhancements are not fully available, naturally, for security reasons according to Raytheon developers, increased guidance, targeting, and durability expand the tactical mission scope for F-22s.
F-22s have been forward positioned in Europe and other strategic locations as part of an apparent deterrence mission aimed at Russia. Should the F-22 be able to attack with greater precision, it naturally brings a new ability to hold enemy aircraft at risk. The F-22 weapons complement includes ground-specific attack weapons such as Joint Direct Attack Munitions – such as the GBU 32 and GBU 39 — and the Small Diameter Bomb.
More precise F-22 fired weapons will enable the F-22 to better leverage its “Supercruise” technology, which lengthens mission time and mission scope for the fighter by allowing it to sustain supersonic speeds without having to use afterburners. This capability is attributed to the engine thrust and aerodynamic configuration of the F-22. This will allow more dwell time for attack missions, enabling pilots to better search for and pinpoint specific targets.
The Air Force’s 3.2B weapons upgrade is part of a new “agile software development” strategy for its F-22 Raptor to quickly equip the stealth fighter with new sensors, improved radar and avionics, faster computer processors and greatly enhanced weapons technology.
Improving F-22 weapons is part of a broader air-attack strategy intended to help the U.S. Air Force pursue critical air-to-air supremacy against fast-emerging near-peer competing platforms, such as the Russian Su-57 stealth fighter. In 2014, the F-22 conducted a successful ground attack against a Taliban facility in Afghanistan.
In preparation for its current operational status, Air Force weapons developers have been testing the 3.2 upgrades with specific “fire-off” exercises at Eglin, Nellis, Hill, and Tyndall Air Force Base test ranges.
“The Update 6 OFP brings a critical interoperability update and significant improvements to radar and In-Flight Data Link stability,” explained Losinger.