The USAF is looking at 14 potential F-22 Raptor upgrades, including integrating the Thales Scorpion helmet-mounted display/weapon cuing system and a long-range IRST sensor.
According to a draft “open topic” on the AFVentures Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) page, the US Air Force (USAF) is looking for a host of F-22 Raptor upgrades and will seek small businesses to offer potential solutions. As reported by Air Force Magazine, no timing was stated for the upgrades.
According to a recent but undated “Focus Topics” summary in the AFVentures system, which is run by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Air Force is looking at 14 potential F-22 upgrades, including integrating the Thales Scorpion helmet-mounted display/weapon cuing system and a long-range infrared search-and-track sensor (CLICK HERE to read all of the 14 potential F-22 Raptor upgrades).
Given that the F-22 is the only frontline USAF fighter not to have a helmet-mounted display and targeting system [the F-15 and F-16 both use the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cuing System (JHMCS), and the F-35 has its own unique helmet-mounted display system (HMDS)], the service has been evaluating the Scorpion helmet for at least seven years.
The helmet system has been consistently deleted from planned F-22 upgrades over the years for various reasons (mostly budgetary, but also due to the size of the helmet hampering pilot movements under the F-22 canopy).
As the AFVentures announcement says the USAF is willing to entertain small business proposals to process aircraft data and provide an interface to the Scorpion helmet, not to provide the helmet itself. The “desired functionality” is to include “displays of threats, battlespace lines, aircraft state information, weapon information, and navigation information.” The overall goal is to improve battlespace situational awareness; “usability and processing intensity are considerations.”
Equipping the F-22 with an infrared search and track system (IRST) is another longtime USAF goal, but because of the challenge of integrating them with the jet’s stealth profile using one of those available for the F-15 and F-16 has been problematic. The F-35 features a stealthy faceted aperture under its nose for various infrared sensing functions. The AFVentures draft didn’t give many specifics, saying only that it’s looking for “novel hardware and software solutions” that would work at long ranges.
Now that adversary air forces are employing stealth aircraft that have greatly reduced radar cross sections, an IRST is considered a key sensing capability. An IRST would have to be integrated with the F-22’s other sensors—mainly its active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar—to provide a holistic view of the battlespace. The AFVentures “improved sensing” subject area speaks to this, saying “methods of interest include machine learning for radar systems, cognitive radar algorithms, radar waveform modernization, sparse sensing, and more.”
According to a 2017 interview with Ken Merchant (at the time Lockheed Martin’s vice president for the F-22, and more recently headed F-35 sustainment and now has his own company, Life Cycle Solutions) the F-22’s internal layout does not have the necessary “real estate” available to accommodate an F-35-style electro-optical system. Nevertheless, Merchant suggested that if the F-22’s early-generation flat panel displays—which are thick and heavy—were swapped out for the latest slim and light versions, then space in the cockpit area might be found for an IRST. At the time, Merchant said only that the Air Force was looking at “other options.”
Because it would require external carriage and defeat the F-22’s low observable features, the Raptor could not use the Lockheed Martin “Legion Pod,” which flies with the F-15 and has been fitted to the F-16 and various drones. If the F-22 carried an IRST in its “cheek” internal weapon station, where short-range AIM-9X missiles are carried, it would still require the station doors to open, also negating the jet’s stealth profile and creating asymmetric drag for extended use.
As we have already reported because of the advance of counter-stealth systems and the F-22’s small fleet size the USAF does not intend to keep the Raptor beyond around 2030, however it will continue to upgrade the aircraft to keep it relevant against the toughest threats until the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) system is fielded.
The Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor is the world’s first stealthy air dominance fighter. In 1981 the USAF needed a new air superiority fighter that would take advantage of new technologies in fighter design including composite materials, lightweight alloys, advanced flight control systems, higher power propulsion systems and stealth technology. Lockheed Martin’s F-22 won the design competition in April 1991, and the rollout ceremony for the first F-22 Raptor occurred in April 1997.
The Raptor successfully completed its initial operational and test evaluation in 2004, and the program received approval for full rate production. In December 2005 operational aircraft were designated F-22As.
On May 12, 2005, the Raptor program achieved a historic milestone with the delivery of the first combat-capable Raptor to the 27th Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter Wing, at Langley Air Force Base, Va. In January 2006 the 27th Fighter Squadron flew the first operational mission with the F-22 in support of Operation Noble Eagle (the official name given to the defense of US borders).
Photo credit: Lockheed Martin and U.S. Air Force