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The Air Force is making a special effort to ensure its weapons are modernized, upgraded and developed as quickly as other elements of 5th and 6th generation aircraft to ensure that air lethality keeps pace with stealth technology, AI-enabled computing and long-range sensors.
“We want to be careful as we purchase 5th-gen aircraft, we can’t put 3rd gen weapons on them,” Lt. Gen. David Nahom, Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs, told the Mitchell Institute for Aersopace Studies.
Weapons Research Development Test and Evaluation (RDT&E)
The service has made considerable effort to modernize its arsenal of weapons through efforts such as software enhancements to the AIM-120D and AIM-9X air-to-air weapons, yet some Air Force weapons developers are concerned that there might not be enough innovative next-generation weapons programs and technological breakthroughs. This is why Nahom explained the importance of sustaining and improving Research Development Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) efforts to identify paradigm-changing new weapons technologies.
“We have to have enough RDTE in advanced munitions, for the high end fight. We are balancing the money and going to put a little more into advanced RDTE efforts,” Nahom said.
The AIM-9X has, for example, been adapted to fire “off-boresight” meaning it can change course in flight and redirect to attack an enemy aircraft flying on the side or even behind of the attacking jet. A fighter jet such as the F-35 does therefore not have to have a strickly linear, straight ahead firing trajectory but can attack at virtually all angles.
There has also been hardening upgrades to a wide range of weapons systems such as the AIM-120D which could be referred to as efforts to counter countermeasures. For instance, should an adversary seek to locate and jam a targeting frequency essential to the weapon’s guidance, newer software upgrades can enable weapons like the AIM-120D to engage in “frequency hopping” and switch frequencies to stay on course to its target.
The upcoming fourth software drop for the F-35 will be a big part of this, as each successive software “drop” or series of enhancements will in many cases expand the weapons envelope for the aircraft by adding interfaces, fire-control adjustments and the required levels of targeting and comptuing technologies.
The fourth software drop for the F-35, for example, will enable the promising cutting edge Stormbreaker weapon to launch from the aircraft. In development now for many years, the Stormbreaker introduces an uprecedented technological ability to track and destroy targets through a datalink with pilots at distances up to 40 nautical miles in all weather conditions. The weapon has become famous for its “tri-mode” seeker which combines Infrared, Millimeter wave and laser-guidance technology operate with great precision in all weather conditions and in different respects depending upon the method best suited for a particular target.
Added to this equation is the reality that there may simply need to be a much larger amount of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles in order for the Air Force to be fully prepared for a massive, major power war with an exponentially greater number of “aim points.”
Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told Nahom that a limiting factor in Air Force wargames is the “limited numbers of munitions, such as JASSMs, LRASMs and AMRAAMs. Are we procuring enough?”
Deptula’s point of emphasis was clear in several respects as he stressed the important of operating an Air Force that stays steady and ready to engage in a major warfare conflict require 100 aim points in a single day.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox