Warplanes: May 31, 2004

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Air Force, and lobbyists from  warplane manufacturer Lockheed Martin, have been making the rounds on Capital Hill over the past few weeks. Their goal is to ensure the survival of the F-22 fighter as the defense budget money for this new aircraft becomes more endangered. There are  increasingly louder calls from Congress to enlarge the size of the Army, and cut the F-22 budget to pay for it. To fight this, F-22 supporters have been informally briefing Congress on the F-22's "secret" capabilities in cruise missile defense and electronic warfare,. The Air Force would like to purchase over 400 F-22s while Congress is leaning towards a number as few as 100-150. 

To defend against cruise missile attacks, F-22s would rely on their high-speed and stealth capabilities to operate "well" behind enemy lines in an extended picket line at altitudes of 25,000-30,000 feet. This would enable the F-22 to find and destroy  both high-speed air-launched missiles and low-speed missiles flying at low altitudes. Typically the F-22 operates around 50,000 feet against fighters. Cruise missiles would be attacked with an improved version of the AIM-120C AMRAAM air-to-air missile optimized for destruction of slow missiles in a head-on engagement. In one tactic, F-22s would take head-on shots against cruise missiles, then turn around and take follow-up shots from behind by using the plane's Mach 1.7 supersonic cruise speed to catch up. Data on cruise missiles getting past the F-22s would be passed via data link to second and third layer air patrols of F-15s and F-18Es with advanced radars. 

The F-22's potential for electronic warfare (EW) is more intriguing and may be the mission that ensures the airplane is not abruptly terminated. Designed to go against sophisticated Soviet Cold War air defenses, the F-22 has a built-in complex of passive electronics surveillance sensors along the outside edges of the aircraft that allow it to rapidly identify and locate signals. It also has a radar that could be used to concentrate its transmission power strongly enough to jam air defense radars and communications links. With the addition of other equipment in 2010, it should be possible to focus enough energy into a beam strong enough to damage the electronics of enemy sensors. Combine with its "supercruise" ability (flying at supersonic speeds without guzzling excessive amounts of fuel) and its stealthy features, the F-22 is years ahead of any currently fielded (unclassified) flying EW airplane. 

Designs for earlier generation electronic warfare aircraft to jam radars and communications systems were typically an afterthought, using an existing airframe such as the F-4 or A-6, rewriting it, and hanging a lot of electronics pods and generators on the wings. Adding such equipment took away from the capability to bring along weapons for self-defense and made the airplane a larger radar target. Currently, the Navy operates 100 aging (21 years old) EA-6 Prowlers to provide EW protection for both Navy and Air Force operations under a joint agreement and plans to replace the Prowlers with a version of the F-18. The Navy would like to start bringing the EF-18 "Growler" into service by 2010, but the Air Force wants other alternatives to be considered, including a dedicated UAV, a modified B-52 with very large jamming pods and a belly full of bombs to "kinetically suppress" radar emitters, and a version of the F-22. Doug Mohney

 


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