With its reinvention as a bomber, has the F/A-22 finally turned into the next-generation war machine the US Air force really needs?
For an aircraft beginning as foremost an air superiority fighter, the original F-22 design has been shown to be surprisingly flexible. A few years ago the F/A-22 was born by picking up a ground attack mission, and now Lockheed Martin says 85% of the basic airframe can be reinvented into the shape of a regional bomber.
With the unveiling of the FB-22, this Cold War-era fighter programme finally is - on paper - a giant leap closer to the configuration of a next-generation war machine that the US Air Force really needs.
As proposed to the USAF, the FB-22 would inherit the best of the fighter/attack variant's formidable radar and sensor package, yet finally be endowed with the weapons payload and long-distance range that would make adequate use of it.
There is no doubt that the senior leadership of the US Air Force commissioned the concept of the regional bomber project last February expressly with the FB-22 in mind. The 23 proposals submitted by industry late last spring, including three other proposals from Lockheed Martin, could well be an exercise in checking a box for performing a token analysis of alternatives. Lockheed Martin's decision earlier this year to stress affordability by preserving both a common fuselage and production line also provides the FB-22 a competitive advantage over almost any new-build design.
The FB-22's ability to contribute in modern warfare shines in comparison to its would-be predecessor. The F/A-22 has a superior radar and cockpit processing system mated to an extremely fast, low-observable airframe. Such a pity, then, that such an effective airframe is restricted to a 1,075km (580nm) unrefuelled combat radius and an internal bomb bay limited to roughly 1,100kg (2,400lb) for air-to-ground munitions.
It is easy to wonder how great the impact on the modern battlefield would be with the promised capability of the FB-22, which combines advanced sensors, B-2A-like stealth, super-cruise speed, 3,330km-range and a 15,000kg weapons payload. Lockheed Martin incorporates these capabilities by sacrificing only the fighter/attack variant's agility in air-to-air combat, with an FB-22 design that is limited to 6g manoeuvres.
Indeed, the FB-22 design is so well conceived that it glaringly reveals the shortcomings of the F/A-22 design as a ground attack machine, as opposed to the truly superlative dogfight weapon it was meant to be.
The attack role of the original Raptor design was strengthened a few years ago after USAF officials determined there was no place on the battlefield of the future for "one-off" weapons, such as fighters that are meant to destroy only other fighters. But the conversion of the Raptor to the attack mission was never entirely convincing. Unfortunately, the reinvented F/A-22 is still an attack aircraft trapped in the body of an air superiority fighter, albeit probably the world's best.
This is not to say that the F/A-22 programme is entirely without merit. For one thing, it is simply axiomatic that the USA should protect a more than $30 billion investment to develop and field about 30 F/A-22s so far. This fact overshadows the programme's many existing flaws and any new troubles revealed by the investigation of the first crash of a non-demonstrator airframe on a Nevada runway on 20 December.
Some F/A-22s will be highly effective at serving a niche role, but it is worth considering the proper number. The current budget plans for a total fleet of 277 aircraft, at a total cost of nearly $72 billion. Increasing budgetary pressures are likely to reduce that number by as much as 150 aircraft.
Unfortunately, any reduction of F/A-22 orders dramatically increases the odds against the survival of the FB-22 concept, which has a pricing strategy that requires its insertion into an active F/A-22 production line in 2012. However, substantial production cuts could force Lockheed Martin to close the F/A-22 line as early as 2010 or 2011.
The need for a next-generation air-to-air fighter in the USAF inventory also shouldn't be questioned - at least for as long as US military strategy dictates a requirement for equipment that can dominate a war, not just win it. As an air-to-air fighter, the F/A-22 should have no peer in that category for at least another generation. It is in this sense that the FB-22 can be so valuable, providing the true ground attack complement to the F/A-22's dogfighting role.