F-35 Lightning: up and away
April’s arrival of F-35 Lightning IIs at RAF Lakenheath at the start of their first ever deployment outside of the US marked a significant milestone for an aircraft which has been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
With the world’s most advanced multi-role fighter now embarked on a series of training exercises in the skies over Europe as part of the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), it seems a line has at last been drawn under its troubled past and the F-35 will finally get the chance to show the world what it can do. That could turn out to be quite something to behold, given the range of cutting-edge technologies featured in this particular aircraft.
Top of the list is stealth. It is pretty much the class-defining feature for 5th generation warplanes, and the F-35 comes with capabilities that manufacturer Lockheed Martin has described as “unprecedented in tactical fighter aviation.”
Stealth is quite literally built in, through a unique combination of an integrated low observable airframe designed to minimise radar cross section, the use of state-of-the-art manufacturing processes and advanced radar-absorbing materials, and a range of embedded mission system sensors.
The aircraft’s shape is key to achieving its very low observable profile, with leading edge extensions abandoned in favour of chines to provide vortex lift, internal bays for fuel and most weapons, special ‘stealthy’ pylons for some kinds of missiles and engine inlet and intake structures that give minimal reflections to hostile radar.
The aircraft also has measures built in to reduce both its infrared and visual signatures, making it extremely difficult to detect, and affording it greater access into, and enhanced survivability within, contested spaces and anti-access/area denial environments.
However, while stealth may be, as General Mark Welsh, former Chief of Staff at theUS Air Force put it, “the price of admission into the fight”, once there, modern aerial warfare calls for a lot of other technologies, too – and the F-35 has been expressly designed to provide multiple capabilities across the entire battlespace.
Combining its stealthy profile with 5th-generation avionics and the most powerful and comprehensively integrated sensor package ever seen on any fighter, the Lightning II is expected to bring unrivalled levels of flexible capability, and make the role of traditional specialised aircraft increasingly redundant in modern fleets.
According to Lockheed Martin, many of the missions that have been undertaken by specialist platforms in the past, such as air-to-air combat, air-to-ground strikes, electronic attack, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sorties, can all now be performed by a single squadron of F-35s.
It is a bold claim which could have the potential to radically redefine the shape of air forces to come. In both air-to-air and air-to-ground roles, the ability to detect 4th-generation and earlier enemy aircraft and other threats and targets without being itself detected enables the F-35 to take action sooner, and at a much greater stand-off distance. Add to that the formidable array of precision-guided smart munitions and air-to-air missiles that mission planners can select for the platform, and first entry into the battlespace by Lightning IIs should mean that any follow-on forces meet with little resistance.
Clearly stealth remains central to much of the combat advantage this aircraft is expected to bring, but it does not stop there. Electronic weapons are as much a part of the modern battle as explosive ones, and F-35 pilots have at their disposal some of the most advanced electronic warfare capabilities ever envisaged, enabling them to locate and track hostile forces, jam radio frequencies and disrupt attacks with unprecedented precision.
In addition, the aircraft’s comprehensive integrated sensor package is unparalleled in fighter history and allows the F-35 to gather more detailed and sophisticated data than ever before, and should provide record levels of ISR information in real time.
Collecting and collating all of this is a processor that can reportedly perform more than 400 billion operations per second, with secure, high-data-rate communication links then enabling it to be shared across platforms with other aircraft, ground forces and ships, thus massively enhancing the collective overview of the operation as it unfolds.
For the pilot, the F-35’s helmet mounted display systems offers unrivalled situational awareness, with all the mission critical information, including airspeed, heading, altitude, targeting information and warnings, being projected directly onto the visor, not a traditional heads up display. It has been shown to significantly improve response times, while the ability to ‘look through’ the airframe itself thanks to the real-time streaming of images from six infrared cameras mounted around the aircraft to the helmet via the distributed aperture system contributes to giving pilots what has been likened to a ‘God’s eye view’ of the battlefield. To top it all, an integrated camera also gives them night vision.
As reassurance – and deterrence – goes, it is a formidable package and after all the recent questions over the continued ‘relevance’ of NATO, the payment of dues and the fear of increased US disengagement under a Trump administration, Europe could probably do with a little reassurance. Sending over F-35s now seems a particularly timely move, given the recent shifts in geopolitics and the rebalanced priorities of the ERI they have driven.
When President Obama first announced the initiative on a visit to Poland in June 2014, it was intended to provide an emergency response to Russian actions in Crimea and Ukraine – a one-year, $1bn scheme, designed to “reassure allies of the US commitment to their security and territorial integrity as members of the NATO Alliance.”
By 2016, however, Air Force Major General David Allvin, the US European Command’s director of strategy and policy, told Congress that it had morphed into an ongoing programme of deterrence in light of the worsening European strategic environment wrought by Russia’s growing assertiveness and influence. Testifying to the House Armed Services Committee’s oversight and investigation subcommittee on the future of the ERI last July, Allvin warned that Russian steps to “further advance its military adventurism into NATO countries has demanded a strong response”.
ERI is now no longer seen as a short-term effort, but rather an ongoing multi-year plan with a bigger budget – $3.4bn for FY 2017 – to bolster military presence, increase training and exercises, enhance infrastructure, expand the pre-positioning of equipment and materiel and build capacity among the NATO allies.
None of this expressly demands the presence of the F-35, but there is no doubt that having the world’s most high-tech multi-role fighter along for the ride does make a pretty powerful statement of American intent – to friend and foe alike. Of course that message could be conveyed, as it has many times before, by troop numbers, missile systems and massed displays of armour, but there is one specific role in the process of European reassurance that only this aircraft can play.
As US Secretary of Defense James Mattis commented recently, a number of America’s allies have “bet their air superiority on the F-35 programme”. To put it bluntly, after all the negative press, while they might not chose to admit it in public, privately many of them must be welcoming the opportunity to see for themselves that they have backed a winner, and that all of the much-hyped, high-end technology really does work.