So far, the FB-22 sounds like George Washington's ax-identical to the original except for a new blade and a new handle. But many parts of the airplane won't change. The FB-22 would share its predecessor's ability to cruise at supersonic speeds at heights of up to 60,000 feet-2 miles higher than most warplanes-which puts it out of reach of many surface-to-air missiles. Most important, it would adopt the F-22's powerful new radar system, which enables the pilot to locate and identify various kinds of hostile radar from more than 100 miles away-and calculate at what distance their own plane will show up on the enemy's screens. The system is enabled by an electronic receiver system called ALR-94, as well as antennas buried in the surface of the plane and dual supercomputers in its nose. The FB-22 would also borrow from the F-22 an advanced radar capable of producing near-photo-quality pictures of targets on the ground.
Will the scheme work? History says yes. In 1982, at Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth plant, a team led by F-16 designer Harry Hillaker built a prototype it called the F-16XL. The XL, like the FB-22, was a bomber version of an existing fighter-it had a stretched body and broad delta wing for more range and more bombs. "The analogy with the F-16XL is very good," says Al Piccirillo, the first U.S. Air Force program manager for the Advanced Tactical Fighter, which became the F-22. The F-16XL ultimately lost out to a bomber version of the F-15 and never went into production, but many military and industry experts think it was one of the best warplanes that the U.S. Air Force never bought. Could the FB-22 be the phoenix that rises on the ashes of that abandoned project? Piccirillo, for one, thinks it's conceivable.
How might the FB-22 be used in action? Its ability to fly high and fast, combined with its radar-detection and bombing capabilities, would enable it to work in concert with other planes to accomplish dangerous missions. In one scenario developed by Lockheed Martin, a fleet of F-35 fighters and B-2 bombers are headed for their targets-say, a munitions factory-but they must traverse a belt of surface-to-air missile sites to get there. Though the F-35 and
B-2 are both stealthy-designed to evade detection-they can be identified by some of the largest and most powerful radars. The strategy, then, is to send ahead a few FB-22s to take out the enemy's anti-aircraft missiles, clearing the path for the other planes.
Here's where the FB-22's sophisticated radar-sensing abilities come into play. The plane can not only detect hostile radar but ascertain what kind of installation it's coming from. If it senses radar from an antiaircraft missile launcher, it can locate the radar-and thus the missile site-with its ALR-94 receiver. Another plus is the FB-22's ability to cruise faster and higher than the largely subsonic F-35 and the B-2, which makes it more difficult to detect or hit. That speed also enables the FB-22 to attack successfully from a great distance: When the plane launches Small Diameter Bombs toward the enemy's missile site, the bombs glide 50 percent farther than they would if they had been dropped by a plane traveling at subsonic speed.
The Small Diameter Bomb is half the weight of the smallest bomb the Air Force uses today, the 500-pound Mark 82. It has a GPS satellite guidance system, as well as a hardened steel case and high-energy explosive fill. As a result, it can steer itself into a final dive profile that hits the target at the best angle, and can bury itself into the target before exploding.
In recent tests by Boeing and the Air Force, an experimental version of the Small Diameter Bomb destroyed 85 percent of its targets, including airplane shelters insulated with 6 feet of concrete. The conclusion: A small bomb exploding close to a target will do as much damage as a big bomb that lands 100 feet away. The Small Diameter Bomb has wings that fold up for convenient storage, then unfurl when the bomb is dropped to increase its gliding range. Its tail, which is latticed for aerodynamic balance, also folds for easy storage. Six can fit in the same space as a single 1,000-pound GBU-32 bomb.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.