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.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper is enthusiastic about the idea of putting bombs on the normally missile-bearing F-22-a measure that could be considered an interim move toward the FB-22. When the U.S. Army “talks about putting capabilities deep behind enemy lines, this is the thing that will be able to come in at Mach 1.5 to 1.7 to deal with any trouble that they might run into,” Jumper says of the F-22, which is scheduled to debut with the Air Force in 2005. “This will be the airplane that nothing can touch. This is transformational.”
But there are signs of controversy within the Air Force over the notion of morphing the F-22 for a new mission. Air Force Secretary James G. Roche has taken a serious interest in the plane, but others, including Chief of Staff Jumper, are far from sold. These skeptics suggest the FB-22 offers little that’s new, because the F-22 itself can carry Small Diameter Bombs (albeit not as many), and its range could be augmented by aerial refueling. This view is unlikely to sway Roche, who already frets publicly about the Air Force’s dependence on aging tanker planes, but the debate itself is telling. The atmosphere within U.S. military circles these days is tense. Faced with unprecedented new threats, officials know they must adjust their strategies and tools. Whether or not it’s ever built, the FB-22 offers insight into the changing nature of warfare and the need for relatively quick (in weapons-development terms) and economical responses.
The design of the FB-22 is still hush-hush-Lockheed Martin considers it “proprietary” and has not released any artists’ concepts-and as the company responds to shifting military priorities, the details are bound to change. Still, Lockheed officials have said enough to make it possible to make some broad predictions about the proposed plane. For starters, the FB-22 would have a triangular “delta” wing instead of the F-22’s more standard ones. The delta wing would be larger-a necessary modification because bombers must be capable of striking ground targets wherever those targets happen to be, and so they must have significant range. To fly farther, the FB-22 needs to carry more fuel, and wings are the best place to store it. Delta wings are long from front to back and so can be much deeper; they also have a larger area, so their volume is greater. The FB-22 would carry as much as 80 percent more fuel than the F-22.
In addition, the FB-22’s body would be about 10 feet longer than that of the F-22, making room for a larger weapons bay. The new plane would use this space to store two dozen Small Diameter Bombs for ground attacks (though the plane would probably also carry a couple of missiles for self-defense in case of attack by another plane). The FB-22 would also likely dispense with the F-22’s twin horizontal stabilizers and vertical tails, which means that despite its stretched body, the plane’s overall length wouldn’t be much different from the F-22’s.
Rather than adopting the F-22’s Pratt & Whitney F119 engines, the FB-22 is likely to have either the new F135, which was developed from the F119 to power the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, or the rival General Electric F136. Regardless, the new engines will be more powerful, more efficient, and cheaper. And, combined with the proposed design changes, they would enable the FB-22 to travel more than 2,000 miles-twice the range of the F-22-finalizing the new airplane’s transformation from fighter to bomber. “It’s very different,” says FB-22 program manager Bob Rearden.
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.
Lockheed Martin and Boeing are competing to build the production version of the Small Diameter Bomb: The Air Force will pick a winner at the end of 2003. The first plane to carry it will be the F-15E fighter, and the second will be the F-22.
Will the FB-22 be one of the next planes to be equipped with this new small bomb? Lockheed Martin certainly hopes so. The company will be building F-22s for the Air Force until 2013; the most practical approach to the FB-22 would be to have it follow directly afterward on the production line. For that to happen, though, the Air Force will have to request the necessary funds in the annual defense budget, and Congress will have to approve. The price tag for developing the FB-22 would depend on how extensive the modifications are, but would probably run in the low-single-digit billions-much less than it would cost to create an all-new airplane and engine; each plane would probably cost something more than $100 million to build.
The Pentagon has yet to formally evaluate the FB-22 proposal, but U.S. Air Force Secretary Roche has said the agency needs a new, fast, long-range plane, and he has indicated that the FB-22 is a contender. In April, Roche told Defense Daily, an in-the-know Washington, D.C., newsletter, that the work being done to perfect the F-22 is doubly useful because it’s moving the proposed bomber adaptation forward as well.
“The more you improve the F-22,” Roche concluded, “the more you have in the FB-22.”