Our Stealth Jets Need to Have a Talk

Flight Global’s Steve Trimble is at it again today. He’s got a great and simple breakdown of the tech differences between the air superiority rock star F-22 Raptor and its jack of all trades 5th generation cousin, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. Most interesting is his listing of the software and sensor differences between the two jets and the fact that Lockheed is proposing making the planes a lot more similar. 

F-35 detractors often point to the fact that its slower and less maneuverable than the Raptor. JSF supporters constantly point to the jet’s suite of pretty damn impressive sensors and data sharing tools as giving it a distinct edge over any other fighter. During a recent test flight over Virginia, the plane’s Distributed Aperture System (DAS) of infrared sensors, that give the pilot a 360-degree bubble of IR coverage, tracked a missile launch out of Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Lockheed Martin now wants to make it easier for the jets to share information and receive software upgrades by commonizing their computer architecture.

The concept involves installing the F-35 computing architecture and certain hardware in the F-22. Even Lockheed acknowledges the idea would require “significant initial investment”, but could yield “some cost savings” in the long-term. Discussions with the US Air Force are underway.

“Say, if we want to add something to [the F-22 Communication, Navigation, Identification] suite, F-35 could take that wholesale with minimal modifications,” says Jeff Babione, vice-president and deputy general manager of the F-22 programme. “So you’ll see this bouncing back and forth where F-22 develops something for F-35, and F-35 develops something for F-22.”

While this won’t make the F-22 the flying ISR monster that is the JSF and it won’t make the F-35 a pure air superiority machine, it would make it easier for the two to work together in doing things like passing data back and forth undetected in enemy airspace.

Considering we’ve only got a limited number of F-22s and the fact that the F-35 will be our  — and our allies’ — predominant stealth fighter for decades, this idea makes a lot of sense, especially if Lockheed can find a way to keep the cost down. (If you’ve tracked the F-35 program, you’ve got to be skeptical about its ability to do that. Though, it does appear the company is getting a handle on JSF costs.)  The same idea also applies to linking the fighters to our B-2 bombers and whatever stealth UAVs are in development.

Collaboration and information sharing give modern militaries a serious edge on the battlefield. If you can successfully link the planes in combat environments — and make it easy to upgrade their software with a shared architecture — they’ll be able  to play to each other’s strengths for decades to come in ways we haven’t even thought of.

Here’s Trimble’s post.

— John Reed

  • nraddin

    Just the idea that these types of projects are developed in a vacuum from each other shows how behind the curve in thinking the military industrial complex has become. Nothing in todays world, from cars and computers to software and writing books is done in as much of a vacuum as apparently developing multi-billion dollar defense projects. Did it honestly not occur to anyone until now that they might be able to use the same software and hardware on more than one type of aircraft?

    People wonder why we have a basic defense budget of OMG huge and then have to get an extra few hundred billion a year just to do anything, it’s crap just like this. And they are proud of themselves for thinking of it decades into the projects. Really?

    • blight

      Well, duh. B-2 was designed to independently penetrate Soviet airspace and drop some nukes, F-22 was designed to fight it out over Eastern Europe with waves of Soviet MIGs. Both weren’t intended to be used in the same battlespace. Then JSF came out far later, and that was about the time the notions of “networking” weapons systems really took off.

      Considering that your hardware is distributed over a thirty year age span it’s unlikely that they could’ve designed interoperability into the electronics. Do you use any thirty year old electronics and have them inter-operating with your modern electronics today?

      For Lockheed this is a win-win since it means avionics upgrades that make them some money. It also decouples some of the avionics costs from the Raptor program and the JSF program, so that those programs don’t look like they’re going overbudget, since some of the tech development is being funded in a different program.

    • chaos0xomega

      You make the assumption that this wasn’t done intentionally.

      From where I’m standing, it looks to me like LockMart planned this out from the beginning to try and get some more money out of the deal.

    • ZRH537

      I couldnt agree with you more. personally i am against using the F35 as our main fighter/attack aircraft. I think having one big huge force made up of one kind of plane is a mistake. If an enemy finds a weakness in the F35, then we only have 187 F22 to deal with the problem. I think they need to cut back from the 2500 F35 they want down to 1000 and use the rest of the money from the other 1500 to make f22.

  • nraddin

    I intentionally left out the B-2 in ever post only talking about the f-35 and f-22 because they where both developed in the internet age. I understand that legacy frames are going to have less capability to incorporate newer functionality, but the f-35 and f-22 where in Dev at the same time.

    • blight

      nraddin: B2 was developed and fielded first, but F-22 was developed earlier than JSF, and JSF fielded afterwards. To facilitate intercommunication between JSF and F-22 would require redesign on the F-22’s part, which would have delayed delivery. The fact that JSF’s specs aren’t finalized either compounds the possibility of massive delays if you try to sync two different aircraft programs…even if they are both being worked on by Lockheed. It sounds so ridiculous, but defense industry isn’t exactly ideal when it comes to these things.

  • @E_L_P

    Define the kind of ISR you want. The F-35 is tuned to operate in a much lower altitude band. The radar horizon from 65K feet with the F-22 and its AN/ALR-94, is huge.

    The F-35 has a long, long way to go before it will be operational. The USAF-the biggest potential buyer; and most knowledgeable with stealth aircraft-might be getting IOC with the F-35 in 2016, figure about 4 years after that before tribal knowledge picks up on how to actually use it.

    All this if the schedule doesn’t slip more (consistent with the program so far). Oh, yeah and the F-35 has over 3 times the software of an F-22, good luck with figuring all of that out.

    The F-35 being a “5th generation fighter” only in the world of marking and PowerPoint

  • Tim

    The F22 is a disaster . Check the numerous articles
    concerning the man hours required to
    maintain it’s stealth capability .The plane is
    on a clear day over Nevada undoubtedly
    the best fighter in the world but in the
    real world is a donkey !

    Check out the Washington Post
    article on the numerous design faults .

  • Boogel

    I guess if there’s a downside it would be that a bug in one would be a bug in all.

  • @Earlydawn

    While I’m shocked that they don’t already have this level of interoperability, I think this is a worthwhile investment. It would certainly give teeth to the idea of a section of F-22s leading a fight of F-35s.

  • Firefox

    Tim, with all my respect, quoting Washington Post as a relevant source of information is pathetic at best. They nevery do homework on military issues, and never compare and investigate sources. Sort of tabloid.

  • Mat

    It’s not that crazy to say the USAF should have had an eye on interoperability and communications links. Since WW2, the USA has used its technological edge to be the most networked force on any battlefield. Right from the days when its carrier aircraft had more and better radios than the Japanese, to its armored divisions having interoperable radio in a way the Germans could only have dreamed of.

    The question is - if the USA has always been good at this, and comms have only become more important with time (it’s not a recent development) why *didn’t* the USAF bring a networked approach to its stealth fighters?

  • LTC Mike

    This issue points out the unidirectional thinking of our top military officers. The B-2 was designed primarily to go after Soviet missile silos; the F-22 for air superiority; and the F35 for ground attack and the occasional dogfight. We have operated integrated air strike packages since WWII. Fighting with only one type of aircraft on any given mission is the exception, not the rule. That’s what the Air War College taught when I was enrolled. Networked computing systems existed since at least the 1980s. Think forward and plan to integrate the newer systems into the older ones.

    • blight

      To be fair we only developed “integrated air strike packages” in WW2 when the tech caught up enough to let P-51’s escort B-17’s to target; and before that the use of drop tanks despite Bomber Mafia obstacles.

      Integrated strike packages probably wouldn’t have been possible for deep in Soviet Union during the 1980’s. No stealth fighters to go in with stealth bombers would skew the doctrine towards solo penetration.

      I’m a little concerned that when we say “think forward”, that the industry thinks it is an excuse to pack all kinds of electronics into a vehicle, which can delay final release until the vehicle is obsolete.

  • Justin H

    Is it just me or does Lockheed Martin suck every single cent out of the tax payers pocket when they build a new fighter? Here is a new slogan based off the “Buy American” one. Buy Anyone Besides Lockheed.

  • mike

    Then you obviously don’t know the difference between a fighter and a strike-fighter (F/A). The F-22 was designed to be a pure air-to-air fighter, the F/A-35 is a do everything work horse like the F/A-18.

  • jack

    Reopen the F-15 production lines, and put some of the stuff from the F-22 and F-35 into it. While you are at it, reopen the A-10 lines when it comes due to replace it..

    We can’t afford such insanely expensive items like the F-22 and F-35 anymore. We are broke. Only DC thinks it can spend like this.

    The Germans made the best tanks and technically advanced aircraft in WWII. Look what it got them. Low production and defeat.

  • itfunk

    This has a lot of advantages for Lockheed.

    1) Firstly it ties the F-22 and F-35 together, you cant cancel the gravy train of 30 years of rework and bug fixes that Lockheed has planned for the F-35 without taking the F-22 with it.

    2) Stuff that works already on the F-22 can be thrown out in the name of compatibility. The teams that should be winding down can be re-purposed to do the whole thing again for the F-35/F-22 version. And it works both ways - throw out what little existing stuff for the F-35 we have because it wont fit in the F-22 either.

    3) Work that just put onto the F-35 can be sold for a higher price because it goes on the F-22 too. Same work twice the margin. This will make up for the fact that hardly anywhere near 1000 F-35 will be built.

    4) Its well known that pretending that reuse between different systems that were never designed to share systems is very expensive - everything has to be massaged with lots of cash back and forth. Lockheed knows this too.

    5) The F-22 development was highway robbery but nothing like the rolling bankers bailout that is the F-35. Lockheed has fought tooth and nail not to reopen the F-22 production line. But the spectare of seeing F-35 profits evaporate because more of the ‘better’ F-22s are produced still haunt them. The F-22 unreliability needs to be on par with the F-35. That means every bug glitch and fault the F-35 has the F-22 should have too.

    6) Lockheed has moved both to outsourcing and lower quality software in the F-35 this improves both initial profits and long term maintenance profitability as the bug laden code is slowly untangled. F-22 still clings to outmoded economic models such as quality production that is a lost revenue opportunity when the customer pays for all the fixes.