Lockheed Martin is quietly pitching the U.S. Air Force a new variant of the F-22 Raptor, equipped with the F-35’s more modern mission avionics and some structural changes, Defense One has learned.
It is one of several options being shopped to the U.S. military and allies as Lockheed explores how it might upgrade its combat jets to counter Russian and Chinese threats anticipated by military officials in the coming decade, according to people with direct knowledge of the plan.
“You’re building a hybrid aircraft,” David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who is now dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “It’s not an F-22. It’s not an F-35. It’s a combination thereof. That can be done much, much more rapidly than introducing a new design.”
The new variant — similar to one Lockheed is pitching to Japan — would incorporate the F-35’s more modern mission system and “other advancements in the stealth coatings and things of that nature,” according to a person familiar with the proposal.
“There’s a lot of potential in this idea,” Deptula said. “I’m not sugesting that we jump right into it and embrace it, but from the Japanese perspective when they are looking at and willing to invest in this kind of an alternative as opposed to trying to build an indigenous aircraft that’s not going to get close to what an F-22 can already deliver. It’s a smart move on their behalf.”
A Lockheed spokeswoman declined to comment about the project.
The proposal has echoes of the late-1990s evolution of the F/A-18 Hornet into the Super Hornet. Pitched as a low-risk project, the F/A-18E/F turned out to require a redesign of almost every exterior part. The new wing proved initially troublesome, but the design eventually proved successful.
The pitch is certain to reignite a longstanding debate: is it better to buy upgraded versions of fourth-generation aircraft such as the F-15 and F-16, or their newer brethren equipped with pricey, hard-to-maintain but effective designs, coatings and electronics?
In July, Defense One reported that Boeing has been quietly shopping a new version of the F-15 Eagle, dubbed the F-15X, designed to carry more bombs and missiles and new electronics. Unlike the F-22 and F-35, it does not have a stealthy design, although advocates for the plane say electronic warfare and other equipment can reduce the risk of being shot down.
People who argue against buying non-stealth aircraft point to this line in NDS: “The Joint Force must be able to strike diverse targets inside adversary air and missile defense networks to destroy mobile power-projection platforms.”
Said the person familiar with Lockheed’s new plane: “You cannot operate a fourth-generation airplane inside those threat scenarios. The move clearly needs to be to fifth-generation airplanes to have any operational capability that’s needed to execute those scenarios.”
Deptula argues that buying upgraded F-22s allows the U.S. military to take an incremental step before buying a radically redesigned sixth-generation fighter jet with technologies that have not yet been proven.
“If you take a look just the general areas of aerodynamics, propulsion, low observability, we have not gotten to the point where we can achieve any order of magnitude increases in any one of those areas beyond where we are [with the] F-22 outer moldline,” Deptula said.
The Air Force has budgeted hundreds of millions of dollars to look at the technologies for its future combat aircraft. Service officials have referred to these efforts as Next Generation Air Dominance or Penetrating Counter Air.
Lockheed is also exploring other offering for the U.S. military and its allies, including putting new technology — such as directed energy and electronic attack — on the F-16, F-22 and F-35. Structural changes to F-35 are also being explored.
The offerings are being compiled as part of an internal Lockheed review that looks at ways to better equip its existing warplane and the technologies that will be part of the future combat planes.
The project is being led by Rob Weiss — leader of Lockheed’s storied Skunk Works Advanced Development Programs for the past five years — who is retiring in the coming months.
“If the U.S.[military] wants to move to a next-generation, air dominance airplane there are lots of options,” the person familiar with the company’s plans said.
Lockheed has been looking at ways to modify the F-35. The source said a plan was recently pitched to senior U.S. Navy officials at the company’s Skunk Work headquarters in Palmdale, California. Options include upgrading the engine for power and fuel-efficiency, and other changes that can be made without altering the exterior design.
Lockheed is also pushing the military to buy more F-35s as a way to make sure it has more stealth aircraft in the next decade. Under current plans, the Air Force in 2030 would have about 1,000 fifth-generation F-22s and F-35s and 1,000 F-15s and F-16s.
“If you have to fight one of these scenarios [described in the National Defense Strategy], it’s a high-risk situation that would result in a lot of attrition of those fourth-generation airplanes,” the source said. “It’s questionable whether the U.S. could carry out its objectives in those scenarios. I think the U.S. would prevail, but not without risk.”
If the F-35 production rate was increased to 80 or 100 jets per year, about 80 percent of those 2,000 fighter jets would be fifth-generation planes, the source said.
“That scenario is substantially different,” the person said. “Now you’ve got very high probability of executing your objectives and a much lower attrition scenario where you can basically keep the fourth-generation airplanes out of harm’s way.”
Then there’s the cost argument. Each of the Air Force’s F-35As in the Pentagon’s latest order is expected to cost about $90 million. The Pentagon has said it wants that cost to drop another $10 million per plane by 2020.
Deptula said the falling price of the F-35 eliminates one argument for buying new versions of the F-15 or F-16.
“As Air Force planner, you’re interested in being able to meet not just the existing, but potential anticipated threats of the future,” Deptula said. “While some might postulate that there may fiscal or monetary advantages, frankly I don’t even see that argument holding much water.
“The kind of individual unit costs that we’re talking about for rebuilding and producing new, old airplanes virtually match the price curve of new F-35s,” he said. “I’m having a hard time understanding what the value proposition is if I’m an Air Force planner trying to recapitalize a geriatric Air Force.”