By Jeff Rhodes
The execute order is given. The two orbiting pilots fly across the border and point their F-35A Lightning IIs toward a high-value target in enemy territory. Because of the objective’s urban location, minimizing both collateral damage and noncombatant casualties is a priority.
National technical means had provided overhead reconnaissance photos of the objective. The Combined Air Operations Center, or CAOC, in a nearby allied country then tasked an F-35 pilot to capture sensor data and radar and infrared images of the target area. Coming in at night at standoff range and high altitude, the highly integrated air defense system around the city was never able to track the inbound stealthy F-35. The imagery was sent over a secure datalink to the CAOC and was being used for mission planning before the F-35 pilot returned to base.
Meanwhile, Special Operations personnel infiltrated the area and are observing the target from their hiding place. They will clear the F-35s in hot, ready to release weapons at the appointed minute.
The F-35 pilots, using their eight- by twenty-inch touch screen/voice-activated contiguous display in the cockpit and their wide field-of-view helmet-mounted display, get a God’s-eye view of the entire area around the target. Symbols for friendly and hostile forces are presented, as are potential threats. Confirmation of exactly what is ahead for hundreds of miles has been datalinked to the F-35 by reconnaissance and battlefield control aircraft orbiting over friendly territory.
As the F-35 pilots approach the target, the internal electro-optical targeting system, or EOTS, allows them to see vehicles and troops on the ground from altitudes and distances beyond visual range. The Special Operators then illuminate the objective with a laser. The lead F-35 pilot releases a GBU-12 from the aircraft’s internal weapons bay far afield from the target. The 500-pound bomb rides the laser to a direct hit. The strike video is recorded in the EOTS and is datalinked to the CAOC seconds later for near real-time battle damage assessment.
This scenario is typical of what the F-35 will bring to the future battlefield. But as history has shown, after air dominance is assured and high-value, heavily defended targets are destroyed, the air war invariably comes down to supporting troops on the ground.
The fifth-generation F-35 is designed for the full spectrum of modern warfare. Its stealth allows pilots to sneak in and destroy targets on the first day of the war. When stealth is no longer critical, the Lightning II can carry 18,000 pounds of ordnance on eleven underwing and fuselage stations for air interdiction and close air support missions. When the fighting gets really close, the F-35 has a 25 mm gun for strafing.
This versatility allows the three variants of the F-35 to replace the F-16, F/A-18C, and Harrier, as well as the A-10, the US Air Force’s purpose-designed close air support platform. As the F-35 is fielded in sufficient numbers starting around 2015, the A-10 fleet will be drawn down. By the time the last A-10 is retired in 2028, it will be about fifty years old.
The conventional takeoff and landing F-35A will be produced in the most numbers, with 1,763 planned for the US Air Force alone. Most international operators will also fly this version, eventually pushing total F-35 production to more than 4,000 aircraft. At about 29,000 pounds empty, the A-model is the lightest of the three variants.
The short takeoff and vertical landing F-35B is designed for the US Marine Corps and the Royal Air Force and Navy. A fully loaded B-model can take off on 1,200 feet of AM2 runway matting or from an amphibious assault ship, providing basing flexibility. The F-35C, designed for the US Navy, features larger wings to carry more fuel and provide better low-speed landing approach characteristics to an aircraft carrier.
With internal weapons and no external fuel tanks, the F-35C with 20,000 pounds of internal fuel can fly more than 600 nautical miles to a target and return safely to ship or base. When stealth is not a mission requirement, external tanks extend the plane’s reach even further. The F-35A has a 590-nautical-mile combat radius, while the F-35B, because of its lift fan for vertical flight and its reduced fuel load, can fly a maximum of more than 450 nautical miles to a target with abundant remaining fuel for the return trip. Of course, shorter range missions mean additional loiter time or the ability to carry additional weapons for all variants.
In the F-35 cockpit, the helmet-mounted display, combined with the aircraft’s distributed aperture system, or DAS, alleviates the need for night vision goggles. The DAS gives the pilot total situational awareness 360 degrees around the aircraft. In particular, DAS enables the pilot to see everything on the ground virtually through the structure of the aircraft—essentially providing a transparent floor. In a close air support situation, the pilot can locate and off-boresight target the enemy, come around and release weapons, and thus minimize exposure to ground threats. No time is wasted reacquiring the target after a bombing or strafing pass.
The Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81 active electronically scanned array radar is common to all F-35 variants. The radar, which has an interleaved search-and-track function, allows the F-35 pilot to engage enemy fighters or low-flying helicopters while detecting, identifying, and directing weapons on fixed and moving ground targets. The APG-81 has nearly three times the range of existing radars and provides the pilot with ultrahigh resolution, synthetic aperture radar imagery.
F-35 variants will eventually be certified to carry virtually every 500-, 1,000- and 2,000-pound bomb in the US inventory, including the satellite-guided GBU-31/32/38 Joint Direct Attack Munition series, the laser-guided GBU-10/12/16/24 Paveway series, and Mk. 82/83/84 free-fall bombs. The Lightning II will also carry the INS/GPS-guided 250-pound GBU-39/40 Small Diameter Bomb, the AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon, and the CBU-103/105 Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispenser. For air combat, the F-35 carries two radar-guided AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles or heat-seeking AIM-132 ASRAAMs internally, and the heat-seeking AIM-9X externally. By 2020, the AGM-65 Maverick missile, a primary weapon on A-10s, will be out of the inventory, although replacements are being developed.
The General Dynamics GAU-22/A four-barrel 25 mm Gatling-type gun is mounted internally on the left shoulder of the F-35A fuselage. This gun, with a firing rate of 3,000 rounds per minute, is an effective weapon against vehicles and light armor and can produce a mobility kill on tanks. The gun can be carried on a removable centerline pod on the F-35B and F-35C.
The F-35’s contributions to future combat are both strategic and tactical. Its stealth and supersonic speed allow the Lightning II to fight in high-threat environments that the slower, unstealthy A-10s cannot survive. The F-35 also will be dispatched to low- and medium-threat theaters. An array of secure voice, data, and identification surveillance systems makes the F-35 a veritable flying information node. The rapidly deployable F-35 has range, loiter time, and a large weapons load. It will be available in large numbers for joint US and coalition actions around the world.
Ground forces have one overriding expectation for air support—keep the enemy off their backs. The F-35 will be up to the task.
Jeff Rhodes is the associate editor of Code One.