The Buzz

Air Force: Secret Technologies Keep the F-35 Safe from the Enemy Learning Its Secrets

Air Force Commanders have known that the F-35A was combat ready after being declared operational last year. The move shows resolve and US power in Europe. Will it send a message to Russia?

Air Force senior leader say there are secret plans and technologies in place designed to prevent potential enemies from obtaining information about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter when it may fly near dangerous or "contested" air space. 

It is indeed quite reasonable to assume that potential US adversaries would like to acquire information about the F-35, including its stealth configuration, maneuverability, sensors, weapons and computer technology.

This question is of particular relevance given the recent deployment of F-35s to Europe for training exercises with European allies. While some of the exercises involved sharing data and practicing combat maneuvers with allies in the region, the scope and precise geography of the deployments were not openly discussed, for security reasons. 

At the same time, given current US tensions with Russia, the recent deployments naturally raise the question as to whether adversaries have the ability to use air defenses, radar and sensors to obtain information about the F-35 should it come within range of their technical range. 

"We have proper procedures to make sure we can fly the airplanes in places where we want to and that people cannot collect information off the F-35," Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, Director of the F-35 Integration Office, told reporters. 

"Most of this is classified," Pleus added. 

At the same time, the Russian military is known to have some of the most technically advanced and capable air defense systems in the world, such as the S-300, S-400 and emerging longer-range S-500. 

"As a community of F-35 pilots, we are always going to be concerned about protecting the F-35 from threats," Pleus said. 

Combat-ready F-35A Lightning II multi-role fighter aircraft arrived earlier several months ago at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England in a move that appeared aimed at countering Russia and showing commitment to NATO allies and European territorial integrity.

“The forward presence of F-35s support my priority of having ready and postured forces here in Europe,” Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the commander of U.S. European Command and NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, said in a written statement.

The aircraft are deployed from the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and will train with European-based allies.

Senior Air Force officials have said that the F-35A was ready to deploy for months now, explaining that it would be available if requested by Comabatant Commanders. 

The concern about protecting the F-35 is well-placed for a number of key reasons. One of them is that a recent Congressional report, citing information published by the Defense Science Board, said Chinese cyber attacks were able to glean some information about the F-35 and other US weapons systems. This could potentially be one reason why observers often point out that emerging Chinese stealth aircraft do resemble elements of the F-35. At the same time, US F-35 developers remain confident that the F-35 has many technologies not known or acquired by potential enemies.

Also, part of the not-much-discussed protective measures in place to enable the F-35 to operate in challenged areas are likely focused on maintaining functionality of the aircraft's "sensor fusion" and high-tech, long-range sensors. 

The deployment also provided a “real” occasion to test the airplane’s ability to use various technologies such as its computer system called the Autonomic Logistic Information System, or ALIS. 

Pleus said that ALIS performed extremely well during the F-35 deployment. 

F-35A "Sensor Fusion": 

The computer system is essential to what F-35 proponents refer to as “sensor fusion,” a next-generation technology which combines and integrates information from a variety of sensors onto a single screen. As a result, a pilot does not have to look at separate displays to calculate mapping information, targeting data, sensor input and results from a radar warning receiver.

The F-35 “fusion” technology allows F-35A pilots to process information and therefore make decisions faster than a potential enemy. He explained how this bears upon the historic and often referred to OODA Loop – a term to connote the Observation Orientation, Decision, Action cycle that fighter pilots need to go through in a dogfight or combat engagement in order to successfully destroy the enemy. The OODA-Loop concept was developed by former Air Force strategist Col. John Boyd; it has been a benchmark of fighter pilot training, preparation and tactical mission execution.

“As we go in and start to target the enemy, we are maximizing the capabilities of our jets. The F-35 takes all that sensor input and gives it to you in one picture. Your ability to make decisions quicker that the enemy is exponentially better than when we were trying to put it all together in a 4th generation airplane.  You are arriving already in a position of advantage,” Harrigian explained.

Also, the F-35 is able to fire weapons such as the AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile “off boresight,” meaning it can destroy enemy targets at different angles of approach that are not necessarily directly in front of the aircraft.

“Before you get into an engagement you will have likely already shot a few missiles at the enemy,” Harrigian said.

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