At least one U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor from 411th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base has been fitted with never before seen stealthy under-wing enclosures, the purpose of which remains unknown.
The possibility of stealthy pods, fuel tanks or weapons capable of being attached to the F-22 from its wings has been speculated for over a decade, as other additions on its external pylons otherwise seriously compromise its radar evading stealth profile which remains the Raptor’s primary advantage over fourth generation fighters. The F-22 was the first fighter in the world designed for air to air combat and incorporating stealth capabilities.
The F-22’s relatively low endurance for a heavyweight fighter, inferior to that of its predecessor the F-15 and far worse than its foreign rivals such as the Russian Su-57 and Chinese J-16, means external fuel tanks are very often used. This makes tanks with stealth capabilities a particularly highly prized asset. The Raptor was designed with combat in the European theatre against the Soviet Union in mind, and in the Pacific Theatre is less well suited to the much wider expanses required to be covered.
External electronic warfare pods with stealth capabilities would also be highly prized, since the F-22’s electronic warfare capabilities remain very limited compered to those of newer fighters such as the F-35. Larger stealth enclosures in future carrying missiles could also do much to compensate for the limited internal missile carriage of stealth fighters, avoiding compromising the fighter’s stealth profile when missiles are carried externally without enclosures.
The F-22 notably saw 75 percent of its production run terminated, as well as possible strike and carrier based variants cancelled, with orders given to terminate production less than four years after the fighter entered service. The aircraft is scheduled for a very early retirement in the 2030s with units likely to be replaced by the F-X sixth generation heavyweight fighter and possibly by some lighter and cheaper F-35s.
The F-X is expected to have a much higher endurance well suited to operations in the Pacific. The F-22’s extreme maintenance requirements and ageing avionics have seriously undermined its performance, ranging from its lack of helmet mounted sights which is a very major handicap in visual range combat, to the lack of modern data links which limits its viability in modern network-centric battle spaces.
It is expected that a portion of the fleet will see significant investment in modernisation, which alongside possible widespread use of the new stealth pods will include new sensors, data links and navigation systems. It remains a possibility that new external stealth enclosures, whatever their purpose, are being tested on the F-22 but are intended primarily for other fighters which are expected to serve for longer such as the F-X and F-35.