Turning a fighter into a bomber may seem like trying to convert a Honda S2000 roadster into a pickup truck. Fighters, which are designed to dogfight with hostile airplanes and perform short-range attack missions, are fast and agile; bombers are made to haul heavy loads for thousands of miles. But Lockheed Martin is designing a fighter-bomber hybrid based on the F-22 Raptor fighter that's in flight-testing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The proposed bomber variant-informally known as the FB-22-has been attracting increasing interest since the September 11 attacks and the start of U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
Before Afghanistan, the Air Force considered its current fleet of bombers adequate and had no plans to build new ones until the late 2030s. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, after all, B-52s-slow and as unstealthy as battleships but loaded with more than 30,000 pounds of guided bombs-were successfully deployed against both ammunition dumps and front-line troops. A few heavy airplanes, the Air Force reasoned, went a long way.
But then came the mission against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and Air Force leaders realized how sorely the service had been neglecting its bomber fleet. Whereas in the Gulf War, the United States could launch its planes from the territory of a nearby ally, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan was a long way from any country that felt like playing host to U.S. combat aircraft. B-52 and B-1 bombers cruised to Afghanistan from British-owned Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, but it took them so long that they could fly fewer missions than desirable. And as tensions continue to rise in the Middle East, nations that are capable of providing the United States with bases within range of likely war zones are coming under increasing pressure, both from terrorists and from their discontented populaces, not to do so. Meanwhile, U.S. bombers are aging: The newest B-52 is 40 years old, and the B-1 is a complex, maintenance-heavy plane designed in the early 1970s. Many military experts believe it's time to revitalize the worn-out bomber fleet.
The FB-22 could be the answer. A midsize bomber, it would inherit the F-22's ability to fly higher and faster than other comparable planes-up to 1,200 mph at 60,000 feet-but would have longer legs and a bigger weapons load. Moreover, it would be a perfect fit with one of the Air Force's most promising new weapons, the Small Diameter Bomb. Though it's a fraction of the weight of a standard bomb, this new bomb is exceedingly precise, thanks to a satellite-controlled GPS-guidance system. The FB-22, which would be built to carry 24 Small Diameter Bombs, could be the ideal aircraft for the warfare of the future. And since it's based on an existing design and would share many parts and materials with its predecessor, it would be relatively inexpensive to build.