Graham Warwick/WASHINGTON DC

The US Air Force is moving ahead with plans to expand the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22's air-to-ground capability, as it fights a surprise move in Congress to eliminate the aircraft's production funding.

The contractor team will brief the USAF later this month on a proposed multi-stage programme that will focus on expanding the F-22's air-to-ground role, says programme general manager Bob Rearden.

The upgrade would begin around the middle of the planned production run of 339 aircraft and would involve equipping and clearing the F-22 to carry a wider range of air-to-ground munitions in its internal weapons bays.

In interviews with Flight International, senior US Air Force officers reiterate their requirement for the basic air-superiority F-22, but acknowledge that the aircraft's air-to-ground capability will be expanded early in its service.

"We are going to go to a multi-role aircraft. That is in the plan," says deputy chief of staff for requirements Gen Bruce Carlson. The F-22 will enter service in 2005, able to carry two 450kg (1,000lb) precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) internally. How quickly its air-to-ground capability will be expanded will depend on funding. "Budgets are extremely tight," says Carlson.

The USAF has shelved studies of a stretched F-22 with larger weapons bays able to accommodate additional JDAMs. Instead, the focus is on increasing the number and types of air-to-ground munitions that can be carried.

Although the USAF still wants around 200 F-22 strike derivatives to replace Boeing F-15Es and Lockheed F-117s, "we will have a significant air-to-ground capability within the [original] 339 aircraft," Carlson says.

"When we first designed the F-22, we had 40 fighter wings and we could afford a single-role aeroplane. Now we are at 20-and we are rapidly running out of that capability," he says.

While Congress has been briefed on the F-22's capability, at entry into service, to strike high-value targets and suppress air defences, "we have not leaped forward to talk about expanding its role because that's a budget issue", says Carlson.

The USAF was given data on 31 different weapon options earlier this year, says Rearden. This is being used to define an expanded air-to-ground capability which could become available as early as 2007-8, says Carlson. The briefing to be provided to the air force this month covers the hardware and software interfaces and flight and weapons testing required for a further multi-stage expansion of the aircraft's air-to-ground role.

Source: Flight International