The USAF’s first fifth-gen stealth fighter jet, F-22 Raptor, is expected to fly and dominate until the futuristic New Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) takes over. Till NGAD arrives and replaces the Raptor, F-22 is undergoing a mammoth and aspirational upgrade program.
Known as the Raptor Agile Capability Release (RACR), it is the biggest ever enhancement program undertaken for this Air-to-Air fighter. Under the RACR, the US Air Force updates the jet’s software about once a year and occasionally makes modest internal hardware alterations using the fast prototyping and rapid fielding acquisition authority.
Release 1, also known as R1, is the initial stage of RACR and lays the groundwork for later upgrades as the key hardware and software enabler for the following R2 enhancement and beyond. As of now, the Air Force is on the R2 stage of the RACR program.
The main focus of R1 is that it equips the Raptor with the AIM-260 Joint Air Tactical Missile (JATM), a new and highly classified weapon that will offer the American fighters a competitive advantage in air warfare. Besides some basic details, little is known about the hidden JATM program.
Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mark Kelly published a rendering of the Lockheed Martin F-22 in May 2022. The picture depicted three F-22s with distinctive fuel tanks and faceted pods under their wings. However, what garnered the most attention was an unidentified missile fired by one of the F-22s.
At the time, it was being speculated that the unknown missile would potentially be a highly classified AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile. The Raptors are now being readied by the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) “Green Bats,” stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, to fire the AIM-260, according to reports.
“We are in the middle of getting ready for live-fire tests this summer, part of a huge joint test effort between the operational testers at Nellis and the developmental testers at Edwards AFB, California. The JATM program is completely dependent on RACR-standard, and the F-22 needs R1 and R2 – to an extent – to shoot JATM”, said Maj. Kevin “Renegade” Autrey, the lead F-22 Raptor operational test pilot of Green Bats.
Not too long ago, another fifth-generation stealth fighter of the USAF, the F-35 Lightning II, was armed with live AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles or AMRAAMs when they landed at Petrovec in North Macedonia, as previously reported by EurAsian Times. The JATM is believed to be several times more lethal than the AIM-120.
The Raptors Will Roar With AIM-260
The US Air Force (USAF) is set to retire at least three dozen F-22 Raptors from service in 2023. The “4+1” plan of the USAF calls for the F-22 to be one leg, followed by the Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter; the F-35 as the “cornerstone” of the fleet as another; the F-15E/EX as a supplement to carry huge armaments as a third; and F-16s as force-capacity maintenance as the fourth leg.
With the introduction of NGAD, the F-22 Raptors will be phased out by the United States Air Forces by 2030. The resources obtained from retiring the F-22 Raptors that are not feasible for combat anymore will be earmarked for the upgrade besides fusing money into the F-35 and the NGAD.
With the NGAD still years away and the military threat faced by the United States, the F-22 is an indispensable part of the US Air Force. However, the RACR upgrade program is imperative to win battles with this fighter.
Further, the AIM-260 that the Raptors will test could be a potential missile for the NGAD. EurAsian Times had earlier reported that the F-22 was being used to test novel technology for the futuristic sixth-gen fighter.
A 2019 industry symposium hosted by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center provided the first official confirmation of the AIM-260 JATM’s existence. Shortly, the AIM-120 AMRAAM is anticipated to be replaced by the missile that Lockheed Martin is currently developing.
According to USAF authorities, the JATM has a substantially longer range than the AMRAAM AIM-120 and can match or even outperform Chinese PL-15 missiles. The new AIM-260 is being developed primarily to outrange the Chinese missiles, which could possibly be achieved through propulsion or a different warhead design.
It is believed that the highly classified JATM combines a multi-mode seeker with a long-burn rocket launcher that can fit into the armaments compartment of the F-22. It will eventually be installed on the F/A-18E/F of the Navy as well as the F-35.
The USAF had earlier said that the JATM “is the number-one air-delivered weapon priority for both the Air Force and the Navy, and out-prioritizes other weapon system improvements and modernization efforts on any fielded aircraft.”
The image released in May also showed a modular, “stacked” propulsion system, implying that the missile may be customized for longer or shorter missions.
Although the Air Combat Command (ACC) artwork did not depict an air intake or unusual propulsive apertures, as seen on Lockheed’s “Cuda” advanced missile, analysts believed the missile would have a revolutionary propulsion technology.
In addition to these cutting-edge missiles, the F-22s are also getting Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST), a passive sensor that can track objects at great distances. The absence of IRST from the jet’s present armament is noticeable. These upgrades are only the tip of the iceberg, as the RACR is a very comprehensive program designed only for the Raptors.