34 years ago, the USAF set out to build a fighter that could guarantee American air superiority for decades to come. $75B, 563 less aircraft than planned, and a decade after being declared operational later, the F-22 still doesn’t have what some MiG-21s have, a Helmet Mounted Sight and a missile to go with it.
Helmet Mounted Sights (HMS) and High-Off Bore-Sight (HOBS) short-range air-to-air missiles have been around for a long, long time. Helmet Mounted Sights, in their most basic form, allow pilots to just look at their target in order to slew their weapons onto it and engage it. HOBS air-to-air missiles allow for targets to be engaged far off the aircraft’s center-line by using a steerable, gimble-mounted seeker head.
The South African Air Force (SAAF) was the first to produce and fly with a fairly crude version of a HMS in the 1970s aboard their Mirage F1s fighters, along with their indigenously developed V3B HOBS short-range air-to-air missile.
Meanwhile the US Navy saw the potential in such a concept and tested Honeywell’s Visual Target Acquisition System over a four year period between 1974 and 1978 as part of a larger evaluation of what the future of air-to-air combat could look like. Although the tests were largely successful, nothing more came of the test program aside from a limited number of older F-4 Phantoms continuing to fly with the system for a limited time.
During the “Border Wars” between Angola and South Africa in the early 1980s, the HMS and HOBS missile proved deadly for Soviet fighters flown by the Angolan forces. Russia took notice and started a high-speed development program to bring HMS and HOBS missile technology to their latest fighter designs. The result was a monocle-like Helmet Mounted Sight system tied to the high off bore-sight AA-11 “Archer” short-range air-tor-air missile.
The Archer and its HMS system were built to be fielded with the 4th generation Russian fighters that went into production in the 1980s. These successful designs included the MiG-29 and Su-27s, with the system originally going operational with the MiG-29 around 1985. Since then, the system has been widely proliferated around the globe and even back-fitted into everything from upgraded MiG-21s and Su-25s to Mi-24 “Hind” helicopter gunships.
Russia’s system, like the SAAF’s and the one the Navy tested, is relatively simple. The pilot locks a monocle-like lens in front of their eye and simply looks at the target, as much as 40 degrees off the aircraft’s center-line, and the missile looks in the same direction, locking onto the fighter’s heat signature. Once it is locked, which can be instantaneous depending on the conditions, the pilot simply fires the missile and it does the rest.
What makes the Archer even more deadly and ahead of its time is that it uses a simple form of thrust vectoring instead of control fins alone to steer toward its target, making it extremely maneuverable and surprisingly reliable.
By the mid 1990s, the second generation Archer came out, the AA-11M, which was able to “see” targets 65 degrees off center-line as well as having the ability to better discern between countermeasures and the real target itself. Range, reliability and maneuverability were also improved over the first generation version.
Meanwhile, and somewhat stunningly, the US and its allies (aside from Israel, who developed and fielded the Python missile and DASH helmet alone) had nothing similar. It was a total capability gap that seemed incredibly strange considering the cost of western high-performance fighter and their technological supremacy. Even America’s best fighters, the F-15, F-16, F/A-18 and F-14, were still packing the AIM-9L/M Sidewinder, a modern variation of a missile dating back to the 1950s which still had a narrow field of view that demanded the fighter’s nose be pointed almost perfectly at the aircraft in order to obtain a “tone,” or lock-on.
Russia’s hard-turning and rapidly maturing 4th generation fighter aircraft, one of which could point its nose at targets even at very slow speeds (Su-27), had a large advantage within visual range just by fielding the Archer and its associated Helmet Mounted Sight alone. Even with all the importance the US and NATO put on Basic Fighter Maneuvers (dogfighting), the technology simply was not there, and if the ‘balloon went up’ and a real fight were to have ever occurred between the two super powers, Russia’s numerical advantage and its HOBS missile toting fighter fleet could have done serious damage to NATO’s fighter armada.
Once the Iron Curtain fell and the Cold War came to an end, NATO fighter crews learned just how effective the Archer and Helmet Mounted Sight combo was, with Germany’s ex-East German MiG-29s turning into the Europe’s quasi-aggressor squadron.
Development of a missile and sighting system that could achieve similar or better performance than the Archer was slow going for NATO allies. By the early 2000s multiple systems were deep in development. The US had its next generation Sidewinder, AIM-9X, and its Joint Helmet Mounted Cuing System, which was a visor-type system that adapted to standard fighter helmets using magnetic spacial tracking, while Europe had the IRIST-T, MICA, ASRAAM missiles and various Helmet Mounted Sights and more advanced Helmet Mounted Displays to integrate with them.
The AIM-9X differs from the last iterations of the original AIM-9 Sidewinder almost totally. For all intents and purposes, it’s a brand new missile that shares the older AIM-9’s rocket motor and warhead. It has an Imaging Infrared Seeker, which uses IR energy in the form of a picture, akin to a video camera, to home in on its target. Because the seeker uses an image instead of a simpler infrared source, it is much harder to confuse with decoys and countermeasures and can differentiate between different objects and aircraft. It can also be reprogrammed to deal with new countermeasures and to hit certain targets in certain areas. It also uses thrust vectoring instead of control fins to maneuver to its target, which greatly enhances its overall maneuverability. When employed with a Helmet Mounted Sight or display, the AIM-9X Block I can hit targets as much as 90 degrees of bore-sight and can lock onto targets at much farther ranges under more challenging conditions that its predecessor. Even without a HMS, the AIM-9X is a huge leap in capability and has a much wider angle bore-sight view than the AIM-9M it replaces. It is also much more maintenance friendly.
By the early 2000s, both the AIM-9X and the Pentagon’s Joint Helmet Mounted Cuing System (JHMCS) were well under development. JHMCS uses a visor like system with a sapphire glass front that has to be precession ground for its user. The top part of the visor houses a Heads Up Display-like projection system that in front of the pilot’s eye on the custom glass shield. More of a display than a simple sight, JHMCS shows basic flight information, targeting information such as radar and data-link contacts out in the space around the pilot, as well as providing cueing for weapons such as the AIM-9X.
Each cockpit has to be mapped out magnetically and a tracker that tracks the pilot’s head position inside in three dimensions needs to be installed. When looking forward at the aircraft’s Heads Up Display, the JHMCS projected symbology cuts out so that pilot can use the HUD for navigation and fine-targeting of certain weapon systems. This is especially useful for employing the fighter’s cannon using the HUDs highly-precise symbology, and it allows for slightly lower tracking tolerances for the JHMCS system.
Oddly enough, the AIM-9X, JHMCS and the F-22 all became operational right around the same time, in the middle of the last decade. Yet strangely, JHMCS was totally absent on the world’s most powerful and expensive fighter. Even worse, the F-22 packed the AIM-9M Sidewinder, not even the AIM-9X without the advantages of JHMCS which still represented a quantum leap in capability. This ‘tension’ between a cutting edge fighter and an old missile design was glaring.
The F-22 was always supposed to have a Helmet Mounted Sight/Display. The amount of information the jet sucks up alone, both passively and actively, is nearly information overload for its pilot. Being able to look outside the cockpit and ‘see’ all the contacts around them highlighted by glowing symbology would be a huge situational awareness boost, and the ability to target enemy aircraft at short range without having to point the jet’s nose at them could mean the difference between winning and losing in a dogfight. Because of the F-22 Program’s cost overruns and the fact that the USAF, the Bush Administration, and Congress had already ‘moved on’ to the massive F-35 Program, and because the F-22s numbers were being slashed by the hundreds budget after budget, the priority became just getting the jet operational, regardless of glaring holes in its envisioned capability set.
This was exemplified by the attempted integration of the JHMCS system into the F-22s cockpit. Although details remain sketchy, it is known that when attempts were made to magnetically ‘map’ the F-22s cockpit for the JHMCS tracking system, it became clear that it would take more resources to make it happen as the F-22s low observable treatments and design (even the cockpit!) were interfering with the process. With pressure mounting, the F-22 Program omitted the Helmet Mounted Sight requirement and moved on, hoping to deal with it shortly after the jet became operational in 2005.
This never happened.
In the end, just 187 F-22s were built, down from 750 that the program originally aimed to supply. It was an afterthought weapon system for both the Bush and Obama Administrations and multiple Secretaries of Defense. “Big Defense” also wanted to focus on the much larger and export-capable F-35 program, which would promise quite literally trillions in income over many decades. As a result, funding trickled into the F-22 micro-sized fleet, even though the jet literally pulverized all of its competition in one massive war game after another, with small formations of Raptors taking out throngs of simulated enemy aircraft.
Unrelated issues, such as the aircraft’s lack of a two-way Link 16 NATO standard data-link, and the aircraft’s oxygen supply scandal, overshadowed the F-22’s incredible war-fighting capability. It was almost as if the F-35 was the first 5th generation fighter, not the F-22, even though the F-35 would be sorely lacking in many characteristics that are essential for a dominance fighter. During this same period, the F-35 program began to enter a free fall developmentally. The services were buying dozens of the jets that had to be partially re-built due to structural and design issues never foreseen under the concept of ‘concurrency,’ where a system is put into production before testing and validation. On top of it all, by the new decade, sequester was looming and defense dollars were becoming more scarce.
All the while, the world’s most capable fighter ever built, one that the US only had well less than 200 of, was flying around with a missile that was antiquated in comparison to Russian designs two and a half decades prior. By around 2010, almost every platform in the DoD’s tactical stable were equipped with some sort of Helmet Mounted Sight. The F-15C/D and the F/A-18C/D got JHMCS first around 2005, and even some of the USAF’s A-10s were flying with the highly capable Scorpion Helmet Mounted Display by this time. Today, the E/A-18G Growler, the electronic attack version of the Super Hornet, sports JHMCS sets not just for the pilot but for the Electronic Warfare Officer in the back as well.
Even though JHMCS was a poor fit for the F-22, other options exist, many of which are superior in some ways. For instance, JHCMS, in its primary first iteration, is incompatible with night vision goggles and is limited in its symbology fidelity. Multiple other systems are available from vendors around the globe and flying on various fighter platforms today. The Scorpion Helmet Mounted Display, which uses a glass pane in front of the pilot’s eye that can be used with Night Vision Goggles was successfully tested in the F-22 years ago.
Although the controversy was centered more on the fact that the F-22 does not have a HMS, the bigger issue is that it doesn’t even have the much-improved AIM-9X missile. Even without a HMS, the AIM-9X is far deadlier than its predecessor in every way. How could the best fighter (and most expensive ever built) not even have the best short-range air-to-air missile in its quiver?
Some may be asking themselves why the F-22 needs such a capability if it is so good at beyond-visual-range air combat in the first place. The answer is multi-fold. First, most modern aerial engagements have required a visual identification of the target before firing. These are just the rules of engagement that have been put in place to cut down on fratricide. Second, the F-22 only has six AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM). This does not necessarily mean one missile per target either. Once they run dry, either the F-22 becomes a bad-guy-evading sensor node or it has to engage its targets at shorter ranges.
When protecting high-value assets (or doing its job in combat at all, really), it cannot always exit the scene the second its last AMRAAM is fired. This is a fictional luxury. It’s stealthiness, high-situational awareness via sensor fusion, and blistering speed allow it to position itself to the advantage in shorter-range fights, hopefully sneaking up on a bad guy without them knowing. But when an enemy’s wingman explodes or the Raptor falls within the detection range of an enemy’s radar (stealth is not invisibility people!) or Infrared Search and Track system, the equation rapidly changes, and the Raptor no longer has the element of surprise on its side. This makes it harder for its pilot to dictate the terms of the fight. Also, things happen in combat, sometimes even the most densely networked battlespace can fail its users, and threats can leak through. As such, the F-22 has to be ready for close-quarters air combat.
The F-22’s ability to ‘super-maneuver’ at slower speeds using its thrust vectoring system is a benefit in the 1 vs 1 fight, but when there are other bad guys around (which there usually are), slowing way down to point the jet’s nose leaves the F-22 vulnerable to attacks by other jets. Keeping up the aircraft’s energy state is key in multi-aircraft close-range engagements.
This fact takes some of the F-22’s air show wowing maneuverability out of the close-in fight equation, and thus, with the element of surprise, high sustained speed, and sensor awareness at beyond-visual ranges totally eliminated from the equation, with the eyeball alone being the primary sensor for both sides, the F-22 is at a disadvantage against a foe with a Helmet Mounted Sight and a High Off Bore-Sight short-range air-to-air missile.
Look at it this way. Basically, the F-22 has to put its nose directly on a bad guy in order to get a shot, depleting a ton of energy in the process, or it has to fight similarly to how the F-15 fought for years before JHMCS and the AIM-9X. Meanwhile, the other guy, even if they are in a rudimentary fighter, although one equipped with a HOBS missile and an HMS, can just look at the F-22 anywhere within the majority of their forward hemisphere, lock it up, and send a missile its way.
Some may argue that the original AIM-9X Block 1 does not have “lock-on after launch capability.” What this means is that the missile’s seeker has to be within line of sight of its target in order for it to lock on and be fired. Seeing that the F-22 has to keep its missiles stowed in its weapons bays, this is not an idea situation, but it is the exact same situation as what pilots have to deal with when carrying the much more limited AIM-9M Sidewinder. When the F-22 employs that missile, the side bays open and the missile’s seeker is pushed out into the air stream so that it can obtain a lock. The same thing could be done with an AIM-9X even when it is not enabled by a Helmet Mounted Sight.
The Block II version of the AIM-9X is data-linked enabled, which allows it to have lock-on after launch capability. In order to do so, the pilot targets the enemy by looking at them with their Helmet Mounted Sight or by designating the target with the aircraft’s radar. The weapons bay then snaps open and the AIM-9X Block II fires, with the target’s direction being sent to the missile via the Raptor’s mission computers via data-link. Once the missile ‘sees’ the target it can lock onto it and and make its final attack. This capability allows for hitting targets beyond 90 degrees off bore-sight and even beyond visual range, which can be a very deadly tool that will help with the fact that the F-22 only has six AMRAAMs to play with. In very short range engagements, the AIM-9X Block II can even turn 180 degrees and hit targets behind the launching aircraft.
Simply put, the Pentagon’s childishly short attention span and totally out-of-whack list of priorities ended up handicapping their “100% solution at-all-costs super-fighter” for what is really a small amount of money and effort in comparison to the 35 year old program as whole. Not just that, but they did this for a key element of the jet’s primary mission, which remains air-to-air even though it has become an outstanding deep strike and destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD) platform.
Only the Pentagon could spend $70B on a fighter jet and even after it has been in service for over a decade, yet still not give it a key capability the Russians fielded 30 years ago and the South Africans a decade before that. It is like they built a grand mansion on the most expensive property in Florida and decided not to install air conditioning. It is outrageously embarrassing and just another symptom of how broken defense procurement has become.
As of now, the F-22 is stated to get AIM-9X operational capability by 2017-2018, but that is not for the entire Raptor force. With only 220 launchers being ordered, theoretically this means only 110 F-22s will receive AIM-9X capability. The truth is that even though there were 187 F-22s built, only 123 are actually combat coded, with another 20 remaining in reserve. The rest are used for training, testing and tactics development.
Finally integrating a Helmet Mounted Sight system, which is key in getting the most out of the AIM-9X, was slated to follow shortly after the F-22 received the ability to utilize the AIM-9X as part of the Raptor’s increment 3.2 upgrade, which includes AIM-120D advanced AMRAAM capability and expanded Small Diameter Bomb capability. But this may not happen due to funding restraints, and the integration of a Helmet Mounted Sight may actually be deferred to the next upgrade evolution, known as increment 3.3, which will come years later, at which time the F-22 will have been operational for well over a decade and a half. Meanwhile, threats are not getting any less potent around the globe.
If it were not so sad, it would be comical.
So while the USAF is putting out press releases about what a great accomplishment AIM-9X integration is on the world’s most expensive and supposedly most capable fighter, they should really be apologizing for the massive achilles heel that the aircraft was allowed to operate with for over a decade in first place.
Considering that the F-35 is being maligned for not having the latest and greatest version of the Small Diameter Bomb integrated into it until around 2022, the fact that to this very day, a decade after it entered service and some 30 years after its development begun, the F-22 still plows the skies with an antiquated short-range air-to-air missile, the consequential tool of its primary mission, is just downright shameful.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com