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Our Stealth Jets Need to Have a Talk

Two F-22s off Guam with a B-2 stealth bomber

Flight Global's Steve Trimble is at it again today. He's got a great and simple breakdown of the tech differences between the air superiority rock star F-22 Raptor and its jack of all trades 5th generation cousin, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. Most interesting is his listing of the software and sensor differences between the two jets and the fact that Lockheed is proposing making the planes a lot more similar. 

F-35 detractors often point to the fact that its slower and less maneuverable than the Raptor. JSF supporters constantly point to the jet's suite of pretty damn impressive sensors and data sharing tools as giving it a distinct edge over any other fighter. During a recent test flight over Virginia, the plane's Distributed Aperture System (DAS) of infrared sensors, that give the pilot a 360-degree bubble of IR coverage, tracked a missile launch out of Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Lockheed Martin now wants to make it easier for the jets to share information and receive software upgrades by commonizing their computer architecture.

The concept involves installing the F-35 computing architecture and certain hardware in the F-22. Even Lockheed acknowledges the idea would require "significant initial investment", but could yield "some cost savings" in the long-term. Discussions with the US Air Force are underway.
"Say, if we want to add something to [the F-22 Communication, Navigation, Identification] suite, F-35 could take that wholesale with minimal modifications," says Jeff Babione, vice-president and deputy general manager of the F-22 programme. "So you'll see this bouncing back and forth where F-22 develops something for F-35, and F-35 develops something for F-22."
While this won't make the F-22 the flying ISR monster that is the JSF and it won't make the F-35 a pure air superiority machine, it would make it easier for the two to work together in doing things like passing data back and forth undetected in enemy airspace.

Considering we've only got a limited number of F-22s and the fact that the F-35 will be our  -- and our allies' -- predominant stealth fighter for decades, this idea makes a lot of sense, especially if Lockheed can find a way to keep the cost down. (If you've tracked the F-35 program, you've got to be skeptical about its ability to do that. Though, it does appear the company is getting a handle on JSF costs.)  The same idea also applies to linking the fighters to our B-2 bombers and whatever stealth UAVs are in development.

Collaboration and information sharing give modern militaries a serious edge on the battlefield. If you can successfully link the planes in combat environments -- and make it easy to upgrade their software with a shared architecture -- they'll be able  to play to each other's strengths for decades to come in ways we haven't even thought of.

Here's Trimble's post.

-- John Reed

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