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F-22 Raptor Photographed With New Stealthy External Fuel Tanks

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F-22 stealth tanks
The F-22 spotted with the possible new Low Drag Tanks and Pylons and the IRST pods. (Photo: @Task_Force23)

The new fuel tanks are part of a package of upgrades announced in 2022.

Two years after the upgrades were announced, we might have the first glimpse of the new stealthy external fuel tanks being developed for the F-22 Raptor. The photo, posted by @Task_Force23 on X, was captured near the Mojave Air and Space Port and shows the Raptor with two fuel tanks, whose shape is reminiscent of the one shown in 2022, and the two pods which house an InfraRed Search and Track (IRST) system.

The new tanks are officially known as Low Drag Tank and Pylon (LDTP) and designed to be stealthier and more aerodynamically efficient than the current 600-gallon fuel tanks. In the FY2023 budget request, the Air Force mentioned that the F-22 LDTPs are advanced technological designs providing increased persistence and range while maintaining lethality and survivability, critical to future mission execution and to maintaining Air Superiority.

The low drag tanks are intended to reduce drag, facilitate supersonic flight with external tanks and extend the range of the F-22. The pylons are equipped with smart rack pneumatic technology to accurately control ejection performance and smooth wind swept surface for minimum drag without store.

A Raptor prototype jettisons the standard fuel tanks (Image credit: Lockheed Martin)

The FY2025 budget re quest documents say that wind tunnel and ground testing of the new drop tanks was completed last year, with flight testing planned in early 2024. The documents also state that the full certification is planned for 2025 and delivery to operational squadrons is expected the next year.

The upgrades for the F-22

Some of the upgrades expected for the F-22 Raptor were unveiled in the Fiscal Year 23 budget request documentation and in an official artwork shared by Gen. Mark Kelly, then Commander of Air Combat Command. In the artwork we can see three Raptors loaded with new stealthy external fuel tanks, two underwing faceted pods and a new unknown air-to-air missile, but there are even more novelties in the documents, which unveils a previously undisclosed relationship between the F-22 and the development of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD).

The two pods installed under the outer underwing hardpoints have already been spotted during flight testing on an F-22 at the Air Force’s Plant 42 facility in Palmdale, California, in February 2022. The latest budget documents mention an InfraRed Search and Track (IRST) sensor being developed for the F-22, which could be the sensor housed inside the two pods, although they could host also other capabilities in addition to the IRST.

The artwork showing the new pods, external fuel tanks and unknown air-to-air missile. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

The addition on the F-22 of an IRST system like the F-35’s Electro Optical Targeting System (EOTS) would require heavy and expensive modifications to the airframe, so a podded solution seems the most reasonable possibility. The addition of an internal IRST sensor on the Raptor was also considered not possible by Lockheed Martin some years ago.

The last upgrade featured in the artwork is a new unknown air-to-air missile. While there are a number of air-to-air missile programs in the works, it is possible that the one in the image could be a representative design, which may or may not correspond to the real deal, for the highly secretive AIM-260 missile. So far, the missile has never been depicted in any kind of image and details about the program are very scarce.

The development of the AIM-260, also called Joint Advanced Tactical Missile, was first unveiled in 2019 and has been in the works at least since 2017. The goal of the new long-range air-to-air missile is to replace the AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) and counter the threat posed by the Chinese PL-15 missile, while avoiding any foreign threats being able to outrange the AIM-120.

F-22
File photo of an F-22 firing an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. (Image credit: Darin Russell via Lockheed Martin).

Among the few known technical details, the new missile will be compatible with the AMRAAM  dimensions, but obviously with greater range, and is planned to be carried in the F-22 weapons bay and on the F/A-18 at first, with the F-35 to follow. Flight tests are already in progress and the missile is expected to be fielded by next year. Because of these reasons, it would be reasonable to suppose that the one shown in the image could be at least a hint at the AIM-260.

Other upgrades mentioned in the budget request are a Mode 5 Identification Friend or Foe (IFF), Link 16 and  Multifunction Information Distribution System Joint Tactical Radio System (MIDS JTRS), a new Operational Fight Program, advanced radar Electronic Protection, Embedded GPS/Inertial Navigation System (INS) Modernization (EGI-M), Open System Architecture (OSA), new encrypted radios.

F-22 Poland
File photo of a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor during aerial refueling with the U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kevin Long)

While the Air Force seems focused on retiring the oldest Raptors, saying their upgrades would be too expensive, is working hard to upgrade the remaining ones to be equipped with cutting-edge capabilities and be relevant in any scenario they could fly into until they are replaced by the NGAD.

F-22 new helmet
Maj. Brett Gedman, 301st Fighter Squadron, readies for a mission wearing the Next Generation Fixed Wing Helmet March 24 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The 46th Test Squadron engineers have begun developmental testing on NGFWH with F-22 pilots while the aircraft are stationed at Eglin. These tests mark the second round of developmental testing since the Air Force announced the new LIFT-manufactured helmet last year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

Stefano D’Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he’s also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.





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