The F-35 is well known for its fleet wide, secure Multifunction Advanced Datalink (MADL) connecting many of the 5th-generation stealth fighters together in seamless fashion, something which widens the mission envelope for F-35 formations, enables the real-time sharing of targeting data and brings the ability to transmit voice, video and data between aircraft in warfare operations.
Given this, MADL is considered essential for the growing multinational focus of the F-35, as it gives NATO and other allied countries with the jet an opportunity to conduct synchronized operations and explore previously unprecedented missions.
F-35 MADL - Destroying Enemy Targets
MADL, when operated in conjunction with other F-35 sensors, can achieve the much sought after goal of sharing threat data and helping the jet find and destroy enemy targets from ranges where it remains undetected. This ability, shown in several wargames in recent years, is something F-35 pilots point to as a defining reason for its superiority.
“Having sensor fusion and MADL (Multifunction Advanced Datalink), all of those potential dogfighting engagements can be avoided before we ever even get within visual range, let alone actually have to dogfight in the air, whatever the opponent is.
The tactical scenario, more often than not, is going to be solved much further out, which is going to give us the advantage,” Monessa “Siren” Balzhiser, F-35 Production and Training Pilot, Lockheed Martin, told The National Interest in a pilot interview special.
MADL: F-22s & Fourth Generation Aircraft
Expanding this operational thinking to the next level, it is not surprising that the Air Force and other F-35 operating services such as the Navy and Marine Corps have in recent years been working on additional communications technologies for the F-35 to bring a MADL-like ability across the entire force to include F-22s and fourth generation aircraft.
“It's not just fighting against fourth-generation threats where the F-35 stands out, but also integrating with other US military platforms and other NATO platforms to meet a strategic objective,” Balzhiser said.
While MADL and the F-35s sensors and computers are of course fundamental to any offensive attack operation, pilots explain that more recent innovations are increasing the jet’s ability to share information with 4th-generation fighters and even other platforms.
“[The F-35] is not just good fighting against fourth generation and it’s not just about all the capabilities we have against fourth-generation, it's also about integrating with fourth-generation fighters. I've gotten to fly the F-16 in a number of large force exercises with F-35s and F-22s and we were all embedded in one strategic goal for the entire ‘war,’ so I think,” Tony “Brick” Wilson, Chief of Fighter Flight Operations (F-35 Test Pilot), Lockheed Martin, told The National Interest in an interview.
F-35s & F-22s: LINK 16
These efforts, ongoing now for several years, have taken many forms. The F-35 can now, for instance, engage in two-day connectivity with F-22s using LINK 16 as a result of certain modifications. Building upon this effort, the Air Force is working with industry partner Northrop Grumman to test a new software programmable radio prototype designed to enable F-35 to F-22 connectivity while preserving “stealth mode.”
F-35: Freedom 550
The Freedom 550, as its called, works by sending Internet Protocol (IP) packets of data through waveforms to transmit combat-relevant information. Colin Phan, the Director of Strategy and Tech Communications for Northrop Grumman, explained that there can be one multi-function box that does as many as twenty-five different functions.
Stealth mode is sustained, Phan explained, by using a smaller number of modules to connect the two data links together through a converter. Fewer modules help preserve stealthy communications by virtue of decreasing the emissions of an omnidirectional antenna which is more likely to be detected. The broader the signal and the wider the emission, the larger the potentially detectable electronic signature, something which can of course present a risk of being detected.
LINK 16 advances and the Freedom 550 radio are a few of the efforts to support the F-35’s “flying computer” role as a data-manager or aerial quarterback in the sky. This fortifies and improves what is already an advantage built into the F-35, which is the ability to organize and streamline data to reduce the need for extraneous data exchange.
“Targeting assignments can be seen and checked by flight leads to make sure that everyone is targeting appropriately. There’s a vast amount of information that the jet is able to absorb, process, and present to not only the pilot in his or her aircraft, but his or her wingman via datalink that significantly cuts the amount of comms required, which again, allows that pilot to become a true tactician,” Chris “Worm” Spinelli, F-35 Test Pilot, Lockheed Martin, said in the special TNI pilot interview.
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 News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.