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May 26, 2009—Looking ahead, the Air Force intends to maintain three blocks of F-22s in its fleet. Today there are four. The earliest Block 10 standard, used for training, will be upgraded to the Block 20 configuration, joining Block 30 and Block 35 aircraft, say officials in the F-22 program office at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

“The fleet end game is to have Block 20, Block 30, and Block 35 airplanes only,” Glenn Miller, a support contractor in the Raptor office, said May 14 in an interview with the Daily Report during a visit to the southern Ohio base. The Block 20s will then be used for training at Tyndall AFB, Fla., and the Block 30 and Block 35 aircraft will serve with combat-ready operational units, he said.

These efforts are part of the Air Force’s F-22 modernization strategy that is designed to get the most bang for the buck out of the Raptor fleet, which will be in service for several decades to come. Toward that end, the service plans spend $7 billion on F-22 modernization over a five-year span starting in Fiscal 2010, David Ahern, director of portfolio systems acquisition in the Pentagon’s weapons-buying shop, told the House Armed Services air and land forces subcommittee on May 20.

As of mid-May, the 141st production F-22 had rolled off Lockheed Martin’s assembly line in Marietta, Ga. Under the currently planned program of record to buy 187 F-22s, manufacture of the final Raptor would be complete in early 2012, said Vince Lewis, chief of capabilities planning and integration in the F-22 program office. Factoring losses to date, the Air Force will have a total of 186 Raptors. Most will be spread out among combat wings at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska; Hickam AFB, Hawaii; Holloman AFB, N.M.; and Langley AFB, Va. There are also F-22s used for testing, in addition to the training birds at Tyndall.

Today, 29 Block 10 aircraft are at Tyndall. Miller said they will be converted to Block 20s as part of the common configuration upgrade program. This effort is aimed at standardizing the different avionics and processors used in these earliest F-22s so that it will be easier for the Air Force to install future software updates in them and they are less burdensome overall to maintain. This work is scheduled for completion by 2013.

Modernization goals for the combat-coded F-22s are to add to the aircraft’s air-to-ground prowess and bolster its inherent air-dominance mission via software upgrades, some hardware tweaks, and integration of new weapons, Lewis and Miller said.

Future upgrades will be retrofitted into these aircraft, which are the newer models in the fleet. However, what is still to be resolved is how far back the Air Force will go in the fleet with these same improvements, they said.

“Some things that we retrofit into later airplanes will probably not be retrofitted into [earlier] airplanes,” explained Miller. “The Air Force is going to have to make some judgment calls about how much they want to spend and how far back they want to go.”

The blocks are distinguished by avionics and software differences as opposed to major hardware variations. Still the differences in build between the earlier and later models would mean that some upgrades in the earlier aircraft would require substantial work.

As a result, Miller said the program office has begun exploring the “80 percent solution” for the earlier aircraft that would yield “most” of the benefit “without tearing the whole airplane apart and rewiring it or laying new fiberoptics.”

The current focus of upgrades is Increment 3.1. This package is already in flight testing, with operational testing anticipated for next year and retrofits probably starting in Fiscal 2011, Lewis and Miller said. It will add the small diameter bomb to the Raptor’s weapons loadout, incorporate synthetic aperture radar modes for ground attack and geo-location capabilities, and improve pilot-aircraft interfaces.

The follow-on, Increment 3.2, is in the early stages of requirements analysis with Air Combat Command. Around November, the Air Force expects to define the content of this upgrade, said Lewis and Miller. Among its enhancements, Increment 3.2 is expected to add the AIM-9X air-to-air missile to the Raptor’s quiver and incorporate the multi-function advanced data link on the aircraft. MADL will allow the Air Force’s B-2, F-22, and F-35 stealth platforms to securely pass digital data to each other and to no-stealthy aircraft and ground units.

The program office also has notional plans for an Increment 3.3 upgrade, said Miller. But its attributes will depend on the final composition of Increment 3.2.

Beyond that, the program office has no additional upgrade plans on the books, according to Lewis and Miller. But Air Combat Command is exploring what the aircraft might look like further out in its service life, they said.

In the past there has been talk of such refinements as exploiting the Raptor’s advanced electronically scanned array radar system for robust electronic attack and extending its unrefueled range in stealth mode. Today, the Raptor can carry external fuel tanks, but they are not stealthy.

Lewis and Miller said, when specifically asked, that there are no plans on the books today to install items like side-staring radar arrays in the aircraft. (There is internal space for them.) Nor is there any program office-driven effort to try to squeeze more usable space in the aircraft’s internal weapons bays for carriage of more missiles or bombs.

The F-22 was built to have a structural life of 8,000 flight hours. With a projected usage rate of about 335 hours per year, the aircraft is expected to last about 24 years, depending on how hard or easy it is flown, according to Lewis and Miller. Lockheed Martin is examining what it would take to extend the service life to 10,000 flight hours, they said.

Unlike legacy fighters like the F-15 or F-16, the F-22 does not have a preprogrammed depot maintenance program. It wasn’t designed that way. Instead, individual aircraft are sent, when necessary, either to Lockheed’s facility in Palmdale, Calif., or the Air Force’s depot at Hill AFB, Utah, for work such as restoration of low-observable skin, Lewis and Miller said.

Unless there is a decision to extend the fleet’s structural life, Miller said there are no plans currently for a traditional-type service life extension program (SLEP). That said, some of the earliest production-version F-22s are already undergoing some structural repairs to bring their service life up to the 8,000-hour standard and reduce the demands on inspecting them, he said.

Lewis said one of the unsung heroes of the F-22 fleet’s success is the group of contractor-run, software-oriented laboratories that help keep the aircraft potent and performing optimally. This long-term marriage is a new construct for the Air Force, and the F-22 is the first manifestation of this type of enduring partnership, he said.

“These laboratories are now part of the weapon system,” Lewis said. In the past, such labs were involved with an aircraft program during the platform’s development, but the ties were severed or the labs were closed as the platform was fielded. But with the F-22, the labs have remained engaged and have played an important role in keeping the aircraft “honed more to a razor’s edge,” he said.

“When you look at this aircraft, it looks more like a sewing machine. It is a very refined piece of equipment” with the labs’ contributions, he explained.

An example of this collaboration is the rather embarrassing case when F-22s crossed the international date line en route to their first overseas deployment—from Langley AFB, Va., to Kadena AB, Japan, in February 2007—and a computer glitch wreaked havoc with their communications and navigation systems. Luckily, the tankers accompanying them were able to guide them back to Hawaii for repair, after which they continued on to Kadena.

With the help of the labs, the Air Force “turned the update in about a week and a half that was safe to fly,” said Miller. “I think that was a superb success story.”

Lewis also praised the F-22’s “superbly performing” F119 engines, which are built by Pratt & Whitney.

“We are talking about one of the most reliable engines ever made,” he said. “They just don’t break.”

Miller noted that the aircraft’s aerodynamic performance “has been superior,” too.