A very intriguing US Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighter caught in the camera lens of talented aviation photographer Santos Caceres as it rolled out of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada on the morning of Nov. 19, 2021. The aircraft is extensively covered in a reflective, tile-like metallic covering unlike anything we’ve seen on a Raptor previously.
While the F-22 can look radically different when its intricate skin covering and delicate composite stealth structures are in different states of repair, a sporty polished metal has never been seen before, and it makes absolutely no operational sense. Note how the coating was carefully applied so as not to interfere with the jet’s many key access points, sensor and antenna areas and other critical systems.
While exactly what we see here is still up for debate, it appears the Raptor in question has a mosaic of reflective material applied to its normal skin for testing purposes. We happen to have seen something eerily similar before, but on an even more exotic airframe.
In June 2020, The war zone
exclusively reported that one of the Scaled Composites Model 401 “Son Of Ares” demonstrators had performed a number of test flights over the Naval Air Weapons Center China Lake covered in a highly reflective metallic coating. It had a similar quilting quality to what we see here on the F-22. At the time, we postulated that this might be for testing advanced infrared sensors and even possible low power laser systems and their targeting capabilities against a “mirror” target.
There is an enormous amount of testing currently underway on Infrared Search and Tracking (IRST) systems that are in the early processes of being widely deployed by the Air Force and Navy, as well as work development on emerging aerial laser systems. It should be noted that the ongoing tests of several General Atomics Avenger unmanned aerial combat vehicles equipped with Legion IRST pods took place in the Mojave Desert. These tests were conducted in conjunction with the Skyborg aerial artificial intelligence initiative and larger highly advanced test scenarios. Testing of various laser systems is also becoming extremely aggressive, and part of a larger campaign to bring directed energy concepts to an operational state. This includes laser systems intended for service on board fighter aircraft.
The F-22 could be a popular target platform for these types of tests because of its performance, namely its ability to fly over 60,000 feet with consistency. The thin, cold air at this altitude, as well as the angle at which most sensors would see such a target, against the cold, dark background of the upper atmosphere, could be very beneficial for testing these systems. Just having a high performance fighter wearing this coating, which some have seen described as being like the shiny side of tinfoil, could have its own testing advantages as the systems it’s tested against mature , but the use of an F-22 is quite telling here. These prized planes are not usually used for tests like this. If a generic fighter target was needed, an F-15 or F-16 that has none of the low-observable skin considerations, among many other factors, could have been used.
We may have seen a similar application on an F-117 before, which wouldn’t be surprising since those planes directly support continuous flight signature testing. Anyway, by all accounts, the USAF seems to have made huge investments in air signature testing in recent years, which makes sense given the geopolitical and competitive climate we currently live in. . It is possible that this mirror-like coating developed into a modular, non-invasive application that is now part of this development ecosystem.
Of course, there could be other testing and development goals at play here. But for an aircraft that was designed at great expense and effort not to directly reflect electromagnetic energy from radars, testing a skin treatment that could do the exact opposite in other spectra is very interesting.
Contact the author: [email protected]