Fighter lives extended as Joint Strike Fighter slips
The failure of so-called “fifth-generation” fighters, the and , to arrive on time and on cost is having cascading effects throughout U.S. and allied fighter forces, ranging from fundamental changes in U.S. Air Force F-22 pilot training to accelerated upgrade and life-extension efforts for .
F-22 training has undergone “a dramatic change” recently, according to Maj. Gen. Larry Wells, commander of the U.S. Ninth Air Force. Wells now leads most of the service's F-22 force, with the transfer in October of Tyndall AFB's F-22 “schoolhouse” from Air Education and Training Command to the Ninth Air Force.
One of the major shifts is toward joint training with, F-16s and other non-stealthy assets. This is in recognition of the fact that sliding F-35 deliveries and the small number of F-22s—the Air Force's buy having been truncated in 2009 because of its high costs and to help fund the JSF—will mean the service will not have a majority-stealth tactical air force before 2030.
F-22 pilots are now training to operate in “sensor formation,” spread 10-15 nm apart, and to act as “quarterbacks” forF-15C/D fighters. “We used to operate the F-22s four to five miles apart—and as we ran out of weapons, the enemy kept coming,” Wells said at Defence IQ's International Fighter conference here this month.
One challenge in this role is that the F-22 “talks to itself very well,” Wells says. The fighter's intra-flight data link communicates only to other F-22s, “and it will be a long time before we have full interoperability.” Another presentation at the conference shows that the F-22 will be able to receive Link 16 data in 2014, with the fielding of Increment 3.2A upgrades, and send Link 16 data (location, identification and track data) in 2015 via an unspecified gateway system. Until then, the only means of communication from F-22s to other assets is voice radio.
In another change to training, Wells says, F-22 pilots routinely face simulated jamming and other problems. “Early on, we flew with full-up systems all the time. Today, it's the opposite. Every day, something is not available —it may be communications, it may be GPS.”
On the positive side, Wells says F-22 capabilities are improving, as are training standards. “We've been flying the F-22 like an F-15,” he says. At the same time, steps are being taken to prepare pilots better for the F-22. New pilots coming from T-38 training fly eight “high-performance lead-in” sorties in F-16s before taking on the Raptor because, Wells says, “we learned that pilots coming out of the T-38 on to the F-22 did not do well. That's something that nations buying the F-35 should consider.”
The Air Force has also added T-38s to all F-22 units as adversary aircraft. “If you fly stealth against stealth, you don't simulate the most likely scenarios,” Wells points out. Some new pilots on F-22 squadrons may fly T-38s for up to a year. “It's something you need to consider as an F-35 customer,” Wells adds. “If you have an all-stealth force, who do you train against?”
F-22s are currently flying in Southwest Asia, Wells says. “There are three things necessary to employ the F-22 in combat. The combatant commander has to have a need for the aircraft, the force provider has to be able to make the aircraft available, and the secretary of defense needs to approve it. That hasn't happened yet.”
With the F-35's initial operational capability (IOC) date still undefined, the Air Force has launched the Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (Capes) program for the F-16, withas sole bidder (AW&ST Aug. 6, p. 38). The Capes plan, under which 350 F-16s would remain in service through 2030, implies a corresponding cutback in Air Force F-35 procurement before that date, relative to the program of record.
Capes is attracting attention from export customers, including Poland. “Delays to JSF are very promising because they pressed the U.S. to start a robust [F-16] upgrade program,” said Col. (ret.) Tadeusz Pieciukiewicz, acting director of Poland's F-16 project office, at the conference. Poland has 48 late-model Advanced Block 52 F-16s and wants to take advantage of Capes improvements such as an active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and improved cockpit displays.
The Capes program itself has undergone one important change recently, according to executives attending the conference. The Air Force has delegated a crucial decision to Lockheed Martin: the choice between theAdvanced Combat Radar and 's Scalable Agile Beam Radar. A request for proposals is expected soon, with a decision before next summer.
The move has not pleased Raytheon. Northrop Grumman has supplied every F-16 radar, as well as the radars on the F-22 and F-35, and that is seen as giving it the inside track. The Air Force's motivations are not clear. Some observers suggest it might be an attempt to “protest-proof” a high-value source selection—the total F-16 upgrade market is estimated at more than 1,000 radars and it is the last opportunity of its size in sight—or simply a recognition that no one on the U.S. government side is experienced enough to make such a choice.
However, South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration, which pickedto lead its own F-16 upgrade program in July, plans to choose an AESA radar, possibly before year-end. South Korea is being pushed to delay its choice and follow the U.S. lead, sources say.
BAE Systems won the Korean deal with a substantial price advantage over Lockheed Martin and is now talking to multiple nations that have been asked to join the Capes program. As well as Poland, there is active interest in F-16 upgrades in Singapore, Portugal and Greece.
However, there is no clear funding line within the Air Force budget for the effort, beyond the early design stages; the plan is to form a consortium with the international partners sharing the cost. Another question is to what extent Capes will be a one-size-fits-all solution, and how that will mesh with local requirements. For example, some F-16 operators require an active electronic warfare system (not part of the Capes baseline, which includes only the Terma ALQ-213 management system) and others do not.