THE US AIR FORCE is prepared to replace its Lockheed F-117s with Lockheed Martin/ Boeing F-22s, rather than see procurement of the F-22 reduced.

Gen. Richard Hawley, commander of US Air Force Air Combat Command, tells Flight International that he would consider retiring the F-117s to safeguard F-22 production by creating a stealthy strike role for the new air-superiority fighter.

Buying fewer F-22s is one of four options being studied under the Quadrenniel Defence Review, said US Air Force chief of staff Gen. Robert Fogleman, speaking at the roll-out of the F-22 on 9 April. The other options are to build the 438 aircraft required to re-equip air-superiority units now operating McDonnell Douglas F-15Cs; to terminate the programme; or to buy more F-22s to replace F-117 and F-15E strike aircraft. Under current plans, a replacement interdiction aircraft is not expected to be developed before 2015.

Fogleman says that a decision to reduce the number of F-22s would be supported by a cost- and operational-effectiveness analysis to determine how to make up the difference in air-superiority capability. A similar analysis would be required to support a decision to acquire additional F-22s to replace F-117s and F-15Es.

The F-22 is emerging as the USAF's preferred option to replace its current strike aircraft. Hawley says that the aircraft could be adapted relatively easily to perform the F-117's "first day of war" precision-strike mission. He says that the F-22 will enter service with the capability for lethal suppression of enemy air-defences and interdiction - both roles exploiting the F-22's ability to carry the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM).

Air Force officials say that adapting the F-22 to replace the F-117 is mainly a matter of "weaponisation" - developing the capability to deliver precision weapons such as an improved JDAM, or small smart munitions now under development. Replacing the F-15E, which can carry a much wider array of weapons than can the stealthy F-117, would be a bigger undertaking, Air Force officials admit.

The officials say that the F-22 matches or exceeds the F-117's stealth and range performance, while its supersonic-cruise capability would allow faster penetration into, and escape from, enemy airspace. This could be exploited to provide a rapid-reaction deep-interdiction capability against mobile targets, they suggest.

Fogleman points out that the air-to-ground capability in the original F-15 had to be removed to make room for growth in its air-to-air mission. "This will not happen with the F-22," he says.

A decision to adopt the F-22 as the replacement interdiction aircraft could have export implications, as the eventual successor to the F-15E is expected to be evaluated by the UK as a replacement for its Panavia Tornados. USAF officials expect the service to present its recommendation on exportability of the F-22 to the US Department of Defense "soon".

Close allies, including the UK, are expected to be cleared to receive data on a still-to-be-defined export derivative, with Israel and South Korea leading interest.

Source: Flight International