As Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) continues over Iraq and Syria, the U.S. Air Force has maintained the involvement of top-of-the-line Lockheed Martin (LM) F-22 Raptor stealth fighters. On six-month rotations to Al Dhafra airbase in the United Arab Emirtates, the Raptors have flown approximately 300 sorties in OIR, dropping weapons and providing “mission assurance” to other elements of the strike package, according to U.S. Air Force officials. This may be a reference to the F-22’s low-visibility monitoring of Russian air activity over Syria, as well as potential activations of Syria’s own air defense systems.
But the high-tech F-22 must use low-tech communications when working in OIR, because its unique intra-flight datalink (IFDL) cannot be received by fourth-generation combat aircraft and it not yet equipped with Link 16 transmit facilities. After a presentation to The Fighter Conference in London last November, Major Justin Anhalt, F-22 requirements officer at HQ Air Combat Command, told AIN that the target date to fit Link 16 transmit capability to the F-22 is being advanced. An initial 72 aircraft will be outfitted in calendar year 2020. The F-22 already has Link 16 receive capability.
The Air Force has tried to address fifth-fourth comms issues since early 2013 with interim solutions such as Talon Hate, the pod fitted to a few F-15Cs that translates IFDL data for a wider audience. It is now in flight test. A multi-domain adaptable processing System (MAPS) is a medium-term concept for a achieving a common tactical picture between fifth- and fourth-gen combat aircraft.
Although the F-22 was not conceived as a strike or ground attack platform, it has performed this role during OIR using GBU-32 JDAM and GBU-39 SDB weapons. Anhalt said that the high cruising speed of the F-22 imparts greater energy—and therefore range—to these glide weapons. Targeting of the GBU-39 was made possible by synthetic aperture radar (SAR) mapping upgrade to the aircraft in Increment 3.1. Since then, Increment 3.2A had added algorithms that fuse the Link 16 tracks that the F-22 can receive with its own sensor data. Increment 3.2B is currently being flight-tested, providing improved geolocation and a commons weapons engagement zone, as well as carriage of the latest upgrades to the core F-22 weapons—the AIM-120D and the AIM-9X Block 2.