Air superiority comes at a cost. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) F-22 Raptor may arguably be the most capable air superiority fighter ever built, but the aircraft has lingered in depots due to a variety of substantial maintenance requirements.
For example, preserving the special exterior coatings that contribute to the fifth-generation aircraft’s very-low-observable radar cross-section requires regular special attention. In response, the USAF contracted Lockheed Martin to establish the Inlet Coating Repair (ICR) Speedline facility in Marietta, GA, in August 2016. The first F-22 arrived there in early November, a second aircraft arrived in early December 2016, and a third in late January 2017. Lockheed Martin is currently contracted to perform the inlet skin coating overhaul on a total of 12 aircraft. A follow-on contract for continuing ICR maintenance is anticipated.
While the Raptor is less reliant on radar-absorbent materials (RAMs) than previous stealth designs like the F-117 Nighthawk, B-2 Spirit, or SR-71 Blackbird, the sensitive, radar-absorbent inlet skin is costly and challenging to repair. The aircraft’s stealth system, which includes the inlet skin, accounts for almost one third of maintenance activities—which (between 2004 and 2009) ranged from 30 to 10.5 hours per flight hour.
In 2012, it was reported that maintenance demands for the Raptor grew as the fleet aged. The increase in F-22 deployments, including ongoing operational combat missions in the Middle East, has additionally increased ICR demand for the maintenance-heavy aircraft.
Lockheed and the USAF have been working on improving coating performance. Additionally, Lockheed is providing modification support services, analytical condition inspections, radar cross section turntable support, and antenna calibration for the F-22.
Since F-22 production ended in 2012, maintaining the 186-unit fleet is increasingly important. Lockheed Martin provides sustainment services to the F-22 fleet through a USAF-awarded Performance Based Logistics contract and a comprehensive weapons management program called Follow-on Agile Sustainment for the Raptor (FASTeR).
The aircraft are expected to serve at least another 20 years of their designed lifespan, and investigations are being made for upgrades to extend their useful lives further. It will not be until the 2030s until the jet will be superseded by a sixth-generation fighter aircraft.
The aircraft gained use of Joint Direct Attack Munitions, synthetic aperture radar mapping, radio emitter direction finding, electronic attack, and the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) through Increment 2 and 3.1 updates. The F-22 fleet was upgraded in 2012 with backup oxygen systems to address frequent oxygen deprivation issues.
Current F-22s are operating in an Increment 3.2A/Upgrade 5 configuration that allows the aircraft to carry the AIM-9X Sidewinder high off-boresight missile; however, the weapon will not be fully integrated into aircraft’s systems until the Increment 3.2B configuration is fielded. Furthermore, it will not be until a later upgrade that the jet will be equipped with a helmet-mounted cuing system for that weapon.
F-22 Increment 3.2B Modernization (F-22 Inc 3.2B Mod)—a $641 million upgrade—will integrate the AIM-9X and AIM-120D into the F-22, add Electronic Protection techniques, incorporate new hardware, enhance geolocate capability, and expand IFDL (Intra-Flight Data Link) functionality.
As the OEM and support integrator for the F-22, Lockheed Martin works closely with the USAF to integrate a total life-cycle systems management process to ensure the fleet is ready to perform its mission. Since the F-22 was declared operational in 2005, many upgrades have been made through Lockheed Martin depot work to maintain the aircraft’s combat superiority. Lockheed’s Reliability and Maintainability Maturation Program team is constantly inspecting data from the field of operations and engineering solutions to increase aircraft availability for combat.
Modernization work occurs at Lockheed’s Palmdale, CA, facility and at Ogden Air Logistics Center at Hill AFB, UT. The depot work is part of a public-private partnership agreement between the USAF and Lockheed Martin that has been in place for nearly a decade.