The US Air Force has confirmed to Flight International that a decision is pending on whether to launch a major upgrade for 63 of its Lockheed Martin F-22s.
Although the decision will be made internally within a few months, the service will wait to publicise the outcome until the Obama administration releases its fiscal year 2012 budget request next February.
Under review is a proposal to upgrade nearly half of the USAF's fleet of 186 operational F-22s with a suite of advanced new weapons that have entered service during the last few years, plus advanced communications equipment that is still in development.
The proposal comes after the Department of Defense decided to terminate F-22 production in early 2012. As part of that decision, it accepted a USAF proposal to spend $1.3 billion on a "common configuration programme", which is consolidating six different versions of the F-22 into three basic types.
For the training and test fleet, the USAF is upgrading 37 Block 10 F-22s, which include two types of production-representative test vehicles, to the Block 20 standard. This includes a new central integrated processor, eliminating an older software configuration that proved unreliable in operational tests nearly a decade ago.
Under the common configuration plan, the combat-coded F-22 fleet is separated into groups of 63 Block 30 and 87 Block 35 aircraft.
The Block 30s are being upgraded with Increment 3.1 capabilities, which include air-to-ground and electronic attack modes for the Northrop Grumman APG-77 radar.
Meanwhile, the Block 35s will also be modernised with the USAF's most advanced air-to-air weapons - the Raytheon AIM-120D AMRAAM and AIM-9X Sidewinder. The package, named Increment 3.2, also adds an automatic ground collision avoidance system and the multifunction advanced datalink. The latter will allow the F-22 to transmit data to other stealth aircraft.
USAF officials are now debating whether to upgrade the 63 Block 30 aircraft to the Block 35 standard. If the proposal is accepted, the USAF would operate a fleet of 150 F-22s with identical capabilities.
But the Raptor fleet would still lack a number of features common to most modern fighters, including an infrared search and track sensor for passive targeting and a helmet-mounted cueing system to shoot at targets beyond the field of view of the fighter's air-to-air missiles.
It is possible, however, that the USAF will add new capabilities to the F-22 beyond the Increment 3.2 upgrades. One example is a distributed aperture system now installed on the Lockheed Martin F-35, which provides 360° optical coverage around the aircraft.
According to Jim Pitts, president of Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems, the USAF is likely to be interested in adopting the system on other aircraft as pilots become familiar with its capabilities.