Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor remains the most potent air superiority fighter in the skies today, and its immense success prompted some within America’s defense apparatus to call for a bigger version of the stealth jet to serve as a highly survivable medium-range fighter/bomber. The effort, dubbed the FB-22, reportedly gained the favor of Air Force Secretary James Roche among others, before ultimately being discarded for other bomber options. In fact, discussion about the FB-22 may have helped get the B-21 Raider off the drawing board and into active development.
The FB-22 stealth bomber would have shared a number of components with its fighter counterpart, though it would have added significant range and payload, as well as a second crew member, at the cost of some of the legendary platform’s acrobatic performance. The goal was to meet the Air Force’s need for a regional or medium-range bomber that could bridge the capability gap between fighter air-to-ground operations and long-range bombers with heavy payload capabilities.
If it had been put into production, the FB-22 could have been the stealthiest fighter/bomber on the planet, and the only supersonic stealth bomber ever to enter operational service for any nation. But it might be more appropriate to think of it as a stealthy replacement for the F-15E Strike Eagle.
The introduction of the F-22 was a watershed moment in military aviation
Development on the F-22 Raptor really dates all the way back to 1981, when the U.S. Air Force first identified the pressing need to field a more advanced fighter to effectively counter the Soviet’s new Su-27 Flanker and MiG-29 Fulcrum. While today, we recognize that the Soviet Union was only about a decade from collapse, the communist nation remained a potent threat, both literally and in terms of perceptions within the defense community at the time. With the stated aim of offsetting any potential Soviet advantage created by their new, highly capable fighters, the Air Force stood up its Advanced Tactical Fighter program in earnest.
By 1986, Lockheed and Northrop were selected to compete for this new contract, which was expected to result in 750 new air superiority fighters that would not only leverage the speed and maneuverability of the Soviet competition, but also stealth technology. Ultimately, Lockheed’s proposed YF-22 beat out Northrop’s YF-23, despite Northrop offering superior stealth and range in their aircraft. While some still contend that Northrop’s fighter was better, the truth was, either jet would have represented a massive jump in fighter capability over Cold War speed demons like the F-15 or the Soviet MiG 29.
You can learn more about the YF-23, and whether or not it may have actually been better than the F-22, in our full feature on the fighter here.
Regardless of which fighter you prefer, there’s no denying that the F-22 Raptor catapulted military aviation into a new era. The new jet could keep up with the MiG-29 and Su-27 in a drag race and offered similar thrust-vectoring acrobatic capabilities, but it absolutely outclassed its Soviet competition in terms of survivability. The F-22 Raptor wouldn’t even need to prove it could fly alongside the MiG and the Flanker thanks to its incredibly small radar cross-section and limited infrared detectability. In other words, the Raptor could kill the best Soviet fighters in the world before they even knew it was there.
It would take nearly twenty years to go from inking the contract to putting Raptors into service, but as Lockheed’s game-changing jet prepared for its operational debut at the tail end of 2005, the fighter had already made such an impression on Defense officials and lawmakers alike that some began asking, “Why not make this thing into a bomber too?”
Why make the F-22 into an FB-22 fighter/bomber?
Modern fighter jets are expected to be able to do just about anything you ask of them, whether that means engaging enemy aircraft traveling at over a thousand miles per hour or dropping bombs on bad guys 30,000 feet down, but most are tailored to a specific mission set. The F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for instance, are largely focused on air-to-ground engagements, and as such, their avionics systems and standard munitions reflect that. The F-22, however, falls under a different aircraft lineage.
Meant to serve as a replacement for the undefeated air superiority champ, the F-15 Eagle, the F-22 Raptor was purpose-built to duke it out with highly capable enemy fighters in the sky. But with the F-35 still years away and the world’s first operational stealth aircraft, the F-117 Nighthawk, gliding toward retirement by the time the F-22 came on the scene, the Air Force had a need for a deep penetration strike aircraft that could do things even the incredibly capable new F-22 just couldn’t.
According to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report from 2005, Lockheed actually started work on an FB-22, or an F-22-based bomber, in 2002, anticipating the branch’s need for such a platform. The FB-22 design Lockheed produced leveraged as many of the same components as the F-22 as possible, which would not only reduce design and production costs, but would have also streamlined training for both operators and maintainers. However, in order to meet the very different needs of a medium-range bomber, this new platform would have had to sacrifice some of the F-22’s incredible performance. Nonetheless, for a bomber-of-sorts, it would still be incredibly light, fast, and survivable in contested airspace.
According to the same CRS report, the FB-22’s potential speed was also an important consideration. Today, just as in the early 2000s, the U.S. Air Force operates only one supersonic bomber–the heavy payload-capable B-1B Lancer, which tops out at around 900 miles per hour, or Mach 1.2. The Air Force believed an FB-22 would achieve speeds as high as Mach 1.8, or nearly 1,400 miles per hour, making it well suited for rapid strikes when time was of the essence. The F-15E Strike Eagle, which entered service in 1988, was capable of reaching speeds as high as Mach 2.5 at altitude, but offered a combat radius similar to that of many fighters, at less than 700 miles.
Turning the king of fighters into a bomber
While fifth-generation stealth fighters like the F-22 Raptor represent a significant jump in capability over non-stealth fourth-generation fighters like the F-15, the transition to stealth came with its fair share of challenges. While the F-15 could carry more than 16,000 pounds of bombs and missiles spread across 11 external hardpoints, its F-22 successor was forced to carry all weapons internally, so as not to compromise its stealth design. That left the Raptor with two AIM-9 infrared tracking air-to-air missiles in side-weapon bays and six AIM-120 radar-guided weapons in its primary bay for its air superiority mission. In a ground attack role, however, its payload was limited to just two 1,000-pound GBU-32 JDAMs to engage targets on the deck below, alongside two AIM-9s and two AIM-120s for any air scraps along the way.
In order to address that, Lockheed Martin designed a bigger Raptor. First, they stretched the fuselage of the FB-22 to add a station for a second crew member who would be able to serve not only as navigator, but would take over the flying responsibilities in shifts during long-duration missions. Surprisingly, this required very little change to the overall design.
The biggest change would be in the wings. The FB-22 would borrow a page out of a previous effort to field a similar fighter/bomber based on the F-16 that, while successful in testing, failed to produce an operational aircraft in 1977. The F-16XL, as it had been called, leveraged large delta-shaped wings that dramatically increased lift and fuel capacity, and the FB-22 would do the same.
The F-16XL’s added square footage on the wings also allowed for a huge increase in hardpoints–to the tune of an incredible 27. Hardpoints, for those who may not be sure, are places to mount bombs or missiles (as well as fuel pods or other equipment). The FB-22 would beat the F-16XL’s 27 with plans for a whopping 35 mounting stations for recently developed 250-pound precision-guided small-diameter bombs.
The delta wings’ added lift would benefit payload capacity and range, but filling those wings with fuel (often referred to as “wet wings”) may have made the biggest difference. According to estimates, the FB-22 would have been slower than its fighter counterpart (a top speed of Mach 1.8 rather than the Raptor’s Mach 2.25) but would have enjoyed double or even triple the operational range. According to some often-cited estimates, the FB-22’s combat radius would have stretched all the way out to 1,800 miles–a significant leap from the F-22’s 600 mile-or-so range. While not capable of pushing nine Gs like the F-22 can under hard maneuvering, the FB-22 would still be capable of at least 6, making it pretty acrobatic for a jet with 35 bombs stuck in its pack.
Perhaps most impressive of all, the FB-22 would leverage advances in stealth made since the F-22’s design had been finalized a decade prior, making it even stealthier.
“This thing will have improved stealth capabilities over any other airplane ever built,” John E. Perrigo, senior manager of combat air systems for Lockheed Martin’s business development branch, said of the FB-22 in 2005.
“It can go places other airplanes can’t go. Even the B-2 can’t go back there [far behind enemy lines] and survive and … do global persistent attack.”
The FB-22 would have used “stealth pods” under wing to carry 35 precision-guided bombs
Because stealth fighters have to carry their weapons internally, the FB-22 faced a huge hurdle in finding a way to carry as many bombs as its new wings would allow, without compromising the aircraft’s stealth profile. After all, it was that stealth that made the F-22 special in the first place. Reducing or eliminating that stealth profile in favor of carrying external munitions would have made the whole effort for naught.
Despite the extended fuselage, there was no way to carry that many weapons inside the internal weapons bay, so Lockheed Martin set their sights on a premise that, to this day, has still yet to come to fruition: They would design stealth “pods” that could be mated beneath the wings of the FB-22 to carry the ordnance that, according to their proposal, wouldn’t negatively affect the aircraft’s stealth profile. The primary payload bay was stretched and widened as well, however, to accommodate larger weapons, including bombs the could weigh up to 5,000 pounds.
The F-22’s thrust vectoring capabilities were sacrificed in the FB-22 design, as acrobatic performance wasn’t required of a medium-range bomber, and according to some outlets, there was discussion of replacing the F-22’s twin Pratt Whitney F119-PW-100 engines with a pair of Pratt Whitney F135s. The F-135 would go on to power the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and running two of them could have pushed the FB-22 to a rumored top speed of Mach 1.92.
The FB-22 concept had some serious fans at the Pentagon
Air Force Secretary James Roche may have been the highest-profile fan of the FB-22 concept, at one point telling the House Armed Services Committee that he envisioned his branch purchasing 150 FB-22s to fly in concert with 381 F-22s and heavy payload fleets of B-1B Lancers, B-52s, and B-2 Spirits.
It’s important to remember that, at the time the FB-22 was being seriously discussed, the U.S. Air Force had no new bombers in development. The branch was operating the same heavy payload platforms that we are today, in the stealth B-2 Spirit and legendary B-52 Stratofortress for conventional and nuclear strikes, and the supersonic B-1B Lancer resigned strictly to carrying conventional ordnance. The branch didn’t intend to source another bomber until the 2030s, but Lockheed Martin’s FB-22 proposal seemed to offer a cost-effective stop-gap between the dated legacy bombers in service and the advanced bombers of the future that had yet to begin forming.
When Lockheed Martin formally presented the FB-22 to the Air Force, they brought six potential iterations of the fighter/bomber with them. Most were largely the same, with changes made to better prioritize different elements of the Air Force’s requirements. Based on the idea of a 150-aircraft fleet, Lockheed claimed purchasing the FB-22 would offer the Pentagon more than $10 billion in savings over the coming two decades “in logistics costs alone,” and argued that putting the bomber into production would cost about a quarter of developing a new aircraft from scratch.
By early 2006, however, the outlook had shifted from promising to grim for the FB-22. Now fully entrenched in the Global War on Terror, the U.S. military was fighting in an environment that was nothing like the near-peer conflict imagined throughout the Cold War. America was engaging opponents with no airpower, and notably, very little in the way of air defenses. That meant stealth was not as pressing a need as it had seemed just a few years prior, especially with each branch now competing for enough budget for combat operations and new programs in development.
Terrorism (or maybe pragmatism) killed the FB-22 before it could fly
While the FB-22 seemed to offer a great bargain in terms of cost for capability, the need for the capability it offered seemed less pressing as time wore on. By 2006, Lockheed Martin’s latest stealth fighter, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, was preparing to begin test flights and would ultimately provide the United States with a second stealth fighter in its arsenal. Importantly, it would be one with a greater emphasis on ground engagements. Meanwhile, the United States found itself embroiled in combat operations in two theaters, neither of which had any real pressing need for a stealth aircraft at all.
With the Soviet Union gone and the threat posed by China still too far off on the horizon to feel urgent, America found itself with a slew of programs aimed at competing with peers… and no peers left to compete with.
With plenty to focus on in the Middle East, the FB-22 program wouldn’t survive 2006’s Quadrennial Defense Review and even its sister jet, the famed F-22 Raptor, would ultimately fall to the budget man’s ax a short five years later. At one point, the Air Force Wanted 750 F-22 Raptors, then it wanted 381 F-22s flying alongside 150 FB-22s. But by 2011, the U.S. decided to settle for just 183 fighters in total.
However, lessons learned from exploring the FB-22 concept may well have played a role in the requirements set forth for the B-21 Raider. Being developed under Northrop Grumman’s banner, the B-21 promises to be the most advanced stealth bomber in history when it enters service later this decade, though it’s important to note, it’s smaller and can carry less than the B-2 and B-1 it’s slated to replace. The B-21 won’t be as fast as the FB-22 would have been, but it will offer greater payload capacity, range, and likely, stealth. Importantly, it’s also slated to arrive in the mid-2020s, a full decade sooner than the Air Force planned while discussing the FB-22. With the F-15EX now also being considered as a viable replacement for the F-15E Strike Eagle, it would seem that, while the FB-22 never made it to fruition, the need for a jet that can do the things the FB-22 could remains present.
Had an FB-22 made it into service, perhaps the Navy could have incorporated it into its own Sea Raptor concept, which hoped to put the king or the dogfight aboard America’s flattops. If that had occurred, its 1,800-mile combat radius would have eliminated the Navy’s current fighter range quagmire, as it would have had the legs needed to engage Chinese targets without sailing carriers into range of China’s hypersonic anti-ship missile systems. Of course, that’s a whole lot of “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” and it’s hard to say if such a thing would even be possible.
You can read more about the Sea Raptor concept, however, in our full feature on it here.
Want more crazy aircraft that almost came to be? Check out these other great stories from Sandboxx News
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- VZ-9 AVROCAR: THE AIR FORCE’S FLYING SAUCER (CAME FROM CANADA)
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- AMERICA’S YF-12 WAS AN SR-71 ARMED WITH AIR-TO-AIR MISSILES
Feature image courtesy of Ace Combat 5