Growing conversation about the need for an array of long-range strike options for Australia is gathering speed, with a similar capability required by the both Japan and the US, and European operators of the Panavia Tornado also needing a replacement – raising the question, could a bulk allied development and acquisition revive the FB-22 concept?
Long-range strike is typically conducted by a range of platforms, ranging from strategic and tactical strike bombers or smaller fighters supported by air-to-air refuelling and airborne early warning and command aircraft.
The doctrine serves to complement to air dominance, with each serving a unique yet symbiotic role in the survivability and effectiveness of tactical units and the broader strategic deterrence within a nation's strategic calculations.
While long-range strike can also be provided by ship and submarine launched cruise missiles, Australia has traditionally relied heavily upon the aerial domain to provide the nation's strategic deterrence, largely in the form of the now retired F-111 series of tactical, regional bomber aircraft.
Australia's focus on air-dominated long-range strike is currently fulfilled by the F/A-18 E/F series Super Hornets and to a lesser extent, the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and is complimented in some ways by the availability of the Navy’s Collins Class submarines, to be supplemented and eventually replaced by the future Attack class vessels.
This combination of platforms and doctrine fits within the Cold War-era 'Defence of Australia' policy and its focus on dominating the 'sea-air gap' as articulated in the 1986 Dibb review following the public backlash against assertive Australian regional presence resulting from the policy of 'Forward Defence' and the nation's involvement in the Vietnam conflict.
While the acquisition of the Super Hornets in the mid-to-late 2000s and the acquisition of the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to fulfil a niche, low-observable limited strike role have both served as a partial stop-gap for that lost capability, the nation has not successfully replaced the capability gap left by the F-111.
This capability gap has prompted retired Air Marshal Leo Davies and his immediate predecessor, Air Marshal (Ret’d) Geoff Brown, two Chiefs of Air Force, to call on the Australian government to more directly invest in the nation's long-range strike capabilities, raising a number of potential options, including strategic bombers and unmanned aerial systems or long-range strike munitions.
Australia is not the only US-aligned nation facing a growing long-range aerial strike capability as European allies including the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy all face the retirement of their Cold War-era Panavia Tornado long-range strike aircraft at a time of increased strategic and tactical competition with a resurgent Russia on the eastern edges of Europe.
The need for a new bomber and evolving the Raptor air frame
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With the beginning of the 21st century, the US Air Force was well positioned to modernise and recapitalise its vast fighter aircraft fleet, with the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters respectively serving as the future of the force's tactical air combat capabilities replacing the likes of the venerable F-15 Eagle, F-16 Falcon and F-18 Hornet series aircraft.
However, the US Air Force would continue to rely heavily on a range of Cold War-era strategic bombers in the B-52 Stratofortress, the B-1 Lancer and the hyper-expensive, stealth B-2 Spirit to provide "prompt global strike" and deterrence capabilities.
Identifying this, the US Air Force recognised a glaring capability gap in the long-range, penetrating strike role, one that could leave US and allied ground forces dangerously exposed.
In response, Lockheed Martin asked the question – what if the Raptor could be transformed into the bomber the Air Force required until a larger, more traditional strategic bomber platform could be fielded?
Enter what would become known as the FB-22, a concept that moved to evolve the Raptor design, with a focus on penetrating tactical and strategic strike.
Two major issues emerged from this, the Raptor's relatively small combat radius of 965 kilometres and its small ground attack capability seemingly limited the evolution opportunities to the Raptor air frame.
Not deterred, Lockheed Martin evolved the air superiority-focused air frame to include thicker, delta-wings with three times the surface area of the standard Raptor and the possible removal of the vertical tail fins.
In contrast, the proposed FB-22 would have a range in excess of 2,574 kilometres and would replace the Air Force's F-15E Strike Eagle variant, carry up to 30, 250-pound small diameter bombs, be powered by the upgraded Pratt & Whitney F135 engine (originally designed for the F-35) and would enable the larger aircraft to maintain high speeds up to Mach 1.92.
Lockheed Martin expected that the total low observable payload would have been approximately 6,800 kilograms and a standard, non-stealth payload of approximately 13,600 kilograms, putting the airframe well into the realm of a regional strategic bomber, comparable to that of the fleet of General Dynamics F-111C operated by the Royal Australian Air Force, which had a payload of approximately 14,300 kilograms.
It was anticipated at that time given the work done on the F-22, evolving the design might cost approximately US$5-7 billion (in 2003 terms) with first flights expected to begin by 2013 and final assembly would be shared between both Lockheed Martin and Boeing as a result of the later making the F-22's wings.
Unfortunately, the FB-22 concept was cancelled following the US government's 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, which cited a number of factors, namely the lack of a peer or near-peer competitor that could counter such an aircraft with much of America and the Western allies efforts focused on counter-terrorism and nation-building operations in the Middle East.
Spreading the production costs and enhanced interoperability
Recent changes within the US political establishment, notably the election of President Donald Trump, has triggered a major rethink in the policies that govern America's arms exports, opening the door for Japan to engage with major US defence contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to support Japan's domestic development of a large, low-observable air superiority fighter to replace its fleet of locally built F-15J aircraft.
While Japan has publicly committed to acquiring a fleet of 147 F-35s, including a fleet of 42 short-take off, vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B variants, the Japanese government has remained focused on procuring a fifth-generation air dominance fighter, with or without US help, to counter the growing challenges it faces in its direct region.
This resulted in the development of the X-2 Shinshin, a technology demonstrator that proved Japan's domestic aerospace industry could produce an indigenous stealth fighter design capable of competing with the world's best.
Both Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have actively supported Japan's continued development of the Shinshin concept, raising renewed questions about a US commitment to reopening the F-22 Raptor line.
Recognising the increasing proliferation of fifth-generation technology and the emerging peer competitor capabilities and previous attempts at acquiring the F-22, both Japan and Australia are well positioned to support the reopening and modernisation of the US F-22 Raptor line.
This is estimated to be worth approximately US$9.9 billion for non-recurring start-up costs according to a US Congress report, and an additional US$40.4 billion to acquire 194 Raptors for the US Air Force.
What this House armed services committee report fails to account for is an allied acquisition and integration within the advanced Raptor development supply chain – most notably Japan and Australia, which are both widely respected US allies and industrial partners within the existing F-35 supply chain.
The acquisition is not without risk, however, as both Japan and Australia would need to at least match the US order of 194 air frames – in a combined manner.
While a joint US, Japanese and Australian acquisition of at least 388 air frames would serve as the basis for re-opening the Raptor line, expanding the export opportunities of an evolved Raptor to include other key 'Five Eyes' allies like Canada and the UK – both of which are currently undergoing air force recapitalisation, modernisation or research and development programs of their own – would further reduce the costs associated with reopening the line and acquiring new Raptor air frames.
Australian procurement could mean enjoying a highly capable, interoperable and future-proofed air frame operated by Japan, a key regional ally, and potentially the US and UK, which agreed with the Japanese government in 2017 to collaborate in the joint development of a fifth-generation aircraft to replace the Royal Air Force and European Typhoons and Tornados within the next two decades.
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on the future of Australia's fifth-generation air combat capabilities in future acquisition and force structure conversations in the comments section below, or get in touch with [email protected] or email [email protected].