By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States had begun production of the f-22 Raptor, the world’s best air superiority fighter—boasting a still unrivaled combination of sustainable high speed, maneuverability and low-observable stealth characteristics. Furthermore, the Pentagon was planning a more affordable multi-role successor for wider-scale production, the F-35 Lightning II. However, the air warfare branch had no new bombers in the pipeline after the B-2 stealth bomber was cut short with only twenty built.
So the idea proposed itself—what if the Raptor could be transformed into a bomber? After all, the F-22’s extraordinary stealth characteristics—superior even to the B-2’s—could be useful for penetrating airspace protected by air defense missiles and enemy fighters, and its supersonic speed would surely also prove an asset.
However, converting the Raptor into a bomber meant adjusting two key parameters: payload and range. The basic F-22 is intended to contest frontline airspace with its combat radius of 600 miles—not nearly far enough for a deep penetrating bomber that can’t rely on tanker planes to tag along into hostile airspace. Furthermore, the Raptor’s modest ground attack capability allows it to carry only four GPS-guided 250-pound Small Diameter bombs internally. Four more can be carried on the wings at the expense of stealth.
When Lockheed Martin studied the concept in the early 2000s, it first considered lengthening the fuselage but found that unacceptably degraded performance. Instead, the manufacturer conceived a variant that kept the fuselage mostly unchanged but sported thicker delta-wings with three times the surface area of the F-22’s—while possibly removing the vertical tail fins.