Related Video Above: Air Force F-15E Now Armed With "Ready for War" New Stormbreaker Bomb
The F-35 is known for its growing arsenal of precision air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, a 25mm cannon for close air support and an advanced suite of EW weapons … Soon, the F-35 will kill tanks.
An ability to track enemy configurations of armored vehicles with high-fidelity sensors and engage enemy ground targets from great stand-off ranges with precision air-to-ground weapons is well established for the F-35, yet the capacity to destroy heavy armor introduces substantial new tactical and strategic dynamics for the 5th-generation jet.
The tank-killing technology will arrive in the form of the fast-emerging Stormbreaker weapons, a first-of-its kind, air-launched precision weapon able to track and destroy moving targets from ranges as far as 40-nautical miles. Now, it's firing from the F-35.
Stormbreaker-maker Raytheon reports that the F-35 is now testing with the Stormbreaker in anticipation of combat deployment.
The Stormbreaker brings unprecedented air-attack technology such as a tri-mode seeker enabling infrared, millimeter wave and semi-active laser guidance targeting options as well as a two-way data link allowing the weapons to adjust course in flight.
The weapon is not only all-weather capable due to its millimeter wave technology but also brings additional fuzing and energetics or explosive options. The integration of new explosive materials and warhead components is what enables the weapon to kill tanks, a Raytheon statement said.
Specifically, the Stormbreaker warheads are equipped with shape charge jets, fragmentation and other technologies which bring an ability to destroy tanks.
“Warheads, equipped with shape charge jets, fragmentation and blast-charge effects, and an option for a delayed smart fuze, are powerful enough to defeat tanks,” the statement explains.
The weapon gives the F-35 an ability to carry as many as 20 Stormbreakers at one time, bringing the jet an ability to track and destroy multiple moving targets on a single mission. While air-dropped precision bombs can pinpoint specific areas to bring great destruction to enemy armored forces, an ability to track, and destroy vehicles from the air in this fashion brings new tactical possibilities.
“The multi-effects warhead really separates this air-to-surface weapon from its predecessor and other munitions in its class,” Alison Howlett, program director for StormBreaker smart weapon at Raytheon Missiles & Defense, a Raytheon Technologies business, said in a company statement.
While HELLFIRE-armed helicopters can track and kill tanks from the air, they are of course much more vulnerable to incoming enemy ground fire and need to operate within much closer-in striking ranges. A HELLFIRE can travel roughly eight kilometers to target, a significant and tactically impactful range, an F-35 fired Stormbreaker will operate with an ability to kill tanks on the move from up to 40 miles.
The Stormbreaker’s delayed fuze can bring additional penetrating effects designed to fire through an armored exterior and explode further into the vehicle, maximizing destruction. Fragmentation upon detonation, yet another element of a multi-effects warhead, can expand the sphere of damage to a tank, making its explosive ammunition compartment more vulnerable.
The ability to integrate and launch a Stormbreaker from the F-35 is made possible by advanced software upgrades, increments or “drops” configured to expand its weapons arsenal. Each software drop enables more elaborate fire-control, targeting and weapons release capabilities, something which brings an entirely new sphere of attack possibilities.
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Video Above: Kris Osborn Reports on F-35 Weapons
While the F-35 has long been established as an Air Force favorite for future Close Air Support missions, flying alongside the famous A-10, the thinking has been primarily centered upon use of its 25mm air-firing cannon and certain course-correcting air-to-ground weapons. An ability to truly destroy tanks on the move from the air, however, could truly change the paradigm for joint air-ground warfare tactics. Testing of the Stormbreaker on the F-35 has been underway toward the end of this year, according to a statement from its maker Raytheon.
The ability to destroy tanks will come from the advanced Stormbreaker weapon, an air-fired bomb able to track and destroy moving targets at ranges longer than 40 nautical miles. It is a first-of-its kind “smart weapon,” built with a two-way datalink, tri-mode seeker enabling infrared, laser and millimeter wave targeting an advanced warhead configuration specific to destroying tanks and heavy armored vehicles on the move.
Lockheed F-35 engineers have specifically built the F-35 for “continuous modernization” through upgrades and new software drops. The integration of new software is what enables the jet to carry, target and fire the weapon.
What might this mean in an air-ground type of combat situation? It certainly aligns with the Pentagon’s fast-emerging air-ground, multi-domain emphasis as it introduces a new sphere of attack options.
Typically, an air dropped bomb such as a Joint Direct Attack Munition would be used to pinpoint parked tanks and armored vehicles should their location be found. However, hitting them on the move is challenging for many JDAMs and standard air-dropped precision weapons. Certain air-to-ground missiles and the F-35s 25mm cannon would primarily enable Close Air Support against maneuvering troops or lighter skinned tactical vehicles.
For the most part, killing tanks might likely be the job of a 120mm tank round itself, Bradley fired TOW missile or ground-launched anti-tank guided missiles. Perhaps some RPGs could disable a tank, depending upon where they hit, but tracking and killing a tank from a stealthy jet brings a new ability.
Clearly helicopters can carry and fire tank-killing HELLFIRE missiles, however they would need to fly closer to the ground at much more vulnerable ranges to incoming ground fire and of course lack the F-35’s speed and maneuverability. The range, precision targeting and speed of an F-35 able to kill tanks presents a new and extremely significant dilemma for an enemy. Perhaps most of all, it advances the Pentagon’s air-ground-attack coordination to a new level.
Should dismounted soldiers be unable get close enough to fire an anti-tank weapon such as a Javelin, and helicopters are unable to approach within striking range due to the range and scope of enemy ground fire...an F-35 could wipe out an entire column of moving enemy tanks from the air, while using stealth, stand-off targeting range, maneuverability and sheer speed to avoid be targeted or even “seen” by enemy ground forces.
The StormBreaker smart weapon weighs just over 200 pounds, and up to 20 can fit on fighter jets like the F-15E Strike Eagle. But their warheads, equipped with shape charge jets, fragmentation and blast charge effects, and an option for a delayed smart fuze, are powerful enough to defeat tanks. a
“It packs a big punch,” said Alison Howlett, program director for StormBreaker smart weapon at Raytheon Missiles & Defense, a Raytheon Technologies business.
The smart weapon’s precision, power and versatility enable it to address a wide range of threats and scenarios.
Deployed on the F-15E, the StormBreaker smart weapon has a tri-mode seeker – that uses imaging infrared and millimeter wave radar – to see through fog, smoke and rain as it glides over 45 miles to strike both fixed or moving targets on land or at sea. The system can also use its semi-active laser or GPS guidance to hit targets. It’s engineered with the flexibility to engage a variety of threats in any environment.
“There’s more possible for StormBreaker – options like adding propulsion or swapping out the seeker depending on the mission. The hardware and software can cover a range of threats,” Howlett said. “It’s a very flexible weapon – one-of-kind with world class technology.”
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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.