Special Video Report: Inside Building the F-35 - Where Stealth Begins
Amid all the debate and political sparring over F-35 funding, sustainment, per aircraft cost and long term modernization, there is another pressing circumstance which tends to get obscured or perhaps at times lost beneath the conceptual and budget-oriented turbulence surrounding the aircraft.
The reality often lost, dismissed or simply buried beneath the ongoing debate is that there is a credible and interesting argument why continued procurement, sustainment and modernization of the F-35 could help establish U.S. air supremacy moving into the coming decades.
F-35s & U.S. Air Supremacy
Why? There are a number of variables which seem to impact this equation. First, the Russians and Chinese simply do not have large numbers of 5th-generation stealth fighters. Yes the J-20 and Su-57 could quite realistically present serious threats and challenges to the F-35, however China now operates roughly 50 J-20 fighters and Russian news reports say the current plan is for the country to acquire roughly 76 Su-57s. However, both of these countries, particularly China, could “flex” production capacity and potentially rev up production of 5th-gen fighters as U.S. 5th and 6th-gen aircraft arrive. China's industrial capacity for production is quite possibly a serious threat, and even though right now the U.S. Air Force plan for 1,763 F-35s massively out guns Russian and Chinese numbers, there is no reason to assume that will remain the case given the strength of the U.S. F-35 and Next Generation Air Dominance 6th Gen aircraft.
Given the known, often discussed and widely recognized reality that “mass matters” when it comes to 5th-gen aircraft, for networking, mission coordination and operational envelope reasons, there may in fact be a significant security reason why F-35 production should be increased. Even though a single F-35 has shown to be capable of tracking and destroying a larger number of enemy aircraft due to its targeting range, computing and sensor resolution, an ability to operate large numbers of dispersed, yet interconnected groups of F-35s is could help preserve U.S. overmatch against Russian and Chinese 5th-gen fighters.
F-35s Multi-function Advanced Datalink (MADL)
This tactical advantage is greatly reinforced by the F-35s international reach and ability to network. The aircrafts Multi-function Advanced Datalink (MADL) enables the jets to quickly and securely share time-sensitive data across a fleet or formation of F-35s. This extends to allied F-35s as well, something of growing significance given the number of countries acquiring the F-35 or adding greater amounts of the aircraft. Japan is underway with a multi-billion dollar F-35 buy, the UK already operates the aircraft in operations, Israel is crafting its own F-35s, Switzerland just chose the aircraft and F-35s are arriving in Denmark, Norway, Italy, South Korea, Australia, Poland and others. The reach of this alliance, and the extent to which it fortifies interoperability could quite possibly completely reshape the strategic and tactical landscape when it comes to air superiority. Larger numbers of F-35s through US, NATO and Pacific allies would massively reinforce this.
F-35s Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2)
In effect, networked, multinational F-35 formations could blanket and potentially overwhelm an operational area, this kind of technological infrastructure closely aligns with the Pentagon’s fast-growing emphasis on Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2). JADC2 is an approach aimed at engineering and enabling a massively dispersed, yet highly networked force of “meshed” combat nodes able to process incoming sensor data at the “edge” or point of attack using advanced algorithms, and an ability to transmit widely and securely across the force with low latency.
Could this kind of international force-structure dynamic outmatch Russian and Chinese 5th-gen aircraft? Possibly, given that greater numbers of F-35 would build in redundancy, offer a targeting and surveillance advantage, favor multiple angles of attack and surge superior power.
F-35s, Su-57s, J-20s and J-31s
Prospects for this of course pertain to the key question of potential performance superiority. Simply put, does a single F-35 outmatch a Russian Su-57, new Checkmate or Chinese 5th Generation aircraft. There is likely not much public information about these rival aircraft apart from what each writes in their own state-run newspapers, however the visible external configuration of China’s J-20 and J-31 both appear to be blatant F-35 and F-22 rip offs to a large extent. Chinese backed newspapers regularly write about engine upgrades, technical or design enhancements and production progress related to its J-20 and J-31, however less is likely known about the aircraft’s weapons. China also talks about its fast-progressing effort to build a carrier-launched variant of the J-31 5th-generation aircraft. At the same time, there appears to be no vertical take off equivalent to the U.S. Marine Corps F-35B, something which might put China at a disadvantage when it comes to operating 5th-generation attack systems from smaller ships such as amphibs.
Also, very little may be known about many of the technical specifics of the Su-57 jet, yet the TASS report says its stealth configuration consists of composite materials, advanced on-board electronics, an onboard computer referred to as the “electronic second pilot,” radar technology and an internal weapons bay.
A true margin of superiority, however, would likely be determined by whichever aircraft operates with superior sensors, image fidelity, computing, weapons guidance and range. Major paradigm-changing leaps forward when it comes to aircraft structure may be less impactful than the anticipated impact of AI, faster computer processing speed, in-flight target guidance such as collaborative weapons and two-way datalinks, improved anti-jamming countermeasures and, perhaps most of all, range and precision. Given this phenomenon, F-35 modernization and software drops come to mind. If the principle margin of superiority is determined by these variables, then the ongoing effort to integrate new computing, weapons interfaces and guidance systems through software upgrades could favorably position the F-35.
Increment iV software drop, for instance, is expected to enable long-range, all weather, precision guided weapons such as Raytheon’s Stormbreaker which uses a tri mode seeker and datalink to shift course in flight as needed. The F-35s threat library, or Mission Data Files, able to catalogue established threats in specific, high-risk areas of the globe might be upgraded quickly and operate with lower-latency, high-speed transmission rates. All of this is so pressing and critical that former Air Force Acquisition Executive William Roper once said “software may decide who wins the next war.”
F-35s "Continuous Modernization"
With this in mind, Pentagon and Lockheed F-35 developers have for many years sought to position the aircraft for “continuous modernization” such that it will fly into the 2070s. It goes without saying that advances in AI, sensor range and data processing will flow into the F-35 at an alarming rate given the pace of innovation and technological advance.
There is already a lot of work going on when it comes to hardening weapons guidance systems against jamming, processing and networking massive volumes of data at the “combat edge” to decrease sensor-to-shooter time and operate warfare at the “speed of relevance.” Could the F-35s electro-optical targeting, 360-degree distributed sensor camera aperture, off-boresight air-to-air missile targeting technology and improved, ultra high-speed AI-enabled computing continually reshape the aircraft’s key performance parameters? The answer seems to be yes, as this has already been demonstrated through previous software drops such as the now operational Block III.
Could sensor superiority, new generations of AI-enabled computing, weapons guidance improvements and hardening enabled by future software upgrades ensure F-35 superiority? Certainly is possible, yet even if rival 5th-generation aircraft are in some ways comparable, they will not rival U.S. air supremacy should the U.S. operate superior numbers of the F-35 itself and among its partnership with allies.
Finally, F-35 superiority can not only be greatly extended with greater numbers of aircraft, but its ability to interoperate with a new generation of U.S. platforms could prove defining when it comes to achieving supremacy.
The F-35 is obviously being engineered to share real-time, high-speed data with emerging systems such as the B-21 bomber and already airborne 6th-generation fighter. This can be accomplished by architecting systems with common IP protocol standards for interoperability or, as is the case with the F-22 to F-35 connection, be made possible through gateway technologies able to convert one transport method to another or establish a “bridge” between otherwise disparate systems such as radio, GPS, RF sensors and things like infrared seekers. One innovation in particular, Northrop Grumman’s Freedom 550 gateway radio, translates RF signals from otherwise incompatible aircraft communications systems into a common ability to network information between the F-35 and F-22 .. while preserving stealth functionality.
This kind of synergy is something one can only expect from 6th-gen aircraft as well. For instance, the Air Force talks often about how the emerging 6th-generation NGAD F-22 replacement will not only potentially introduce new paradigms of air supremacy, but will also be specifically engineered to operate in tandem with large numbers of upgraded F-35s.
Most of all, the force that sustains superiority will need to not only operate in larger numbers but also maintain superior sensing, computing, range and weapons guidance.
One way to massively increase the possibility that the US can stay in front seems quite clear. Buy more F-35s. Not only does adding more lower the cost in block or bulk buys, but it favors sustainment reach and consistency due to commonality and larger-scale production. Prominent members of Congress, Air Force senior leadership, along with Navy advocates for the F-35 and many F-35 pilots themselves continue to champion the importance of F-35 superiority. It just may be that greater numbers of F-35s, given the way they are architected to upgrade, may be a lesser realized key to ensure US air dominance and security.
Their may be hints that the Air Force is leaning in this direction given its ongoing future fighter force study which sees a prominent and growing role for F-35s and NGAD.
“The continued use of legacy aircraft has become costly to both fly and repair. Streamlining the current fighter fleet by transitioning to NGAD, F-35 Lightning II, F-15EX Strike Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon and right-sizing the A-10 Thunderbolt II will ensure the capability, capacity and affordability required to meet the peer threat,” an Air Force report on the Fighter Roadmap writes.
When discussing elements of the Future Fighter Force plan, referred to as a 7 to 4-plus one, General Kelly warned, the U.S. force could first become irrelevant and then face what he called “kinetic defeat” against a superior enemy. The Roadmap is intended to build upon the often discuss Air Force shift from 7 fighter platforms to 4 plus 1, meaning legacy, Cold War era aircraft have dropped from 4,000 aircraft down to 2,000 or fewer aircraft while new fighter jets such as the F-35 and nascent Next Generation Air Dominance 6th-Gen fighter explode onto the scene in larger numbers. Four plus one, Air Force reports explain, amounts to a massive prioritization upon NGAD, F-35, F-15EX Strike Eagle, F-16 (massively upgraded) and “right sizing the A-10 Thunderbolt II.
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