The Buzz

The F-35 Is Already Killing Some of the Most Lethal Weapons of War in the Sky

The F-35 Lightning II destroyed an aerial drone off the Coast of California by launching an AIM-9X air-to-air missile over a military test range, demonstrating the first "live" air-to-air kill test for the emerging stealth multi-role fighter.  

“It's been said you don't really have a fighter until you can actually hit a target and we crossed that threshold with the first air-to-air weapon delivery of an AIM-9X,” U.S. Air Force test pilot, Maj. Raven LeClair, said in a written statement. 

After launch, the missile successfully acquired the target and followed an intercept flight profile before destroying the drone, achieving the first F-35 Air-to-Air kill or “Boola Boola,” which is the traditional radio call made when a pilot shoots down a drone, Pentagon statements explained. 

The AIM-9X is a short-range heat-seeking missile with an "off-boresight" capability for accuracy and features thrust-vectoring controls for increased turn capability; the F-35 can carry two AIM-9X missiles on its wings.  

Designed as part of the developmental trajectory for the emerging F-35, the test-firing of the AIM-9X is intended to further the missile's ability to fire “off-boresight." This is described as an ability to target and destroy air to air targets that are not in front of the aircraft with a direct or immediate line of sight, Pentagon officials explained.

Test data and observers confirmed the F-35 identified and targeted the drone with its mission systems sensors, passed the target ‘track’ information to the missile, enabled the pilot to verify targeting information using the high off-boresight capability of the helmet mounted display and launched the AIM-9X from the aircraft to engage the target drone, a statement from the Pentagon's Joint Strike Fighter Program Office said. 

(This first appeared in Scout Warrior here.)

“If you think of a boresight in terms of a firearm… that’s the adjustments made to an optical sight, to align the barrel of a firearm with the sights.  If you think of it in aircraft terms… traditionally air-to-air missiles are fired at targets in front of the them,” Joint Strike Fighter Program Office spokesman Joe DellaVedova, told Scout Warrior.

The AIM-9X, he described, incorporates an agile thrust vector controlled airframe and the missile’s high off-boresight capability can be used with an advanced helmet (or a helmet-mounted sight) for a wider attack envelope. 

“For example, instead of having to position the aircraft directly in front or behind the enemy fighter… a high off-boresight weapon enables the pilot to just look to the left, right or up and down to engage a target, fire it and the missile locks on for the kill,” he explained.  

Immediately prior to launching the AIM-9X, LeClair (test pilot) employed an internally carried AIM-120C missile against another target drone. This target was beyond visual range and the AIM-120C was given a successful self-destruct signal right before target impact, Pentagon statements said.

AIM-9X:

The AIM-9X missile, which can also be fired at surface-to-air and air-to-surface, is currently in use on a number of existing fighter aircraft such as the Air Force’s F-15E and F-16 and the Navy’s F-18 Super Hornet.

Engineered by Raytheon, the newest AIM-9X Block II weapons are built with a redesigned fuse for increased safety and a lock-on-launch capability. The missile is also configured with a data link to support what’s called “beyond visual range” engagements, meaning targets at much farther ranges picked up by sensors or early warning radar. This could provide a fighter jet with an ability to destroy enemy targets in the air while remaining at a safer stand-off distance less exposed to hostile fire.

"The AIM-9X Sidewinder is an infrared-guided, air-to-air missile employing a focal plane array sensor for unparalleled target acquisition and tracking, augmented by jet vane control technology for extreme maneuverability against a variety of high performance threats,” Mark Justus, Raytheon AIM-9X program director, told Scout Warrior in a written statement. "The missile also has proven capability in air-to-surface and demonstrated capability in surface-to-air missions."

The AIM-9X Block II is the current version of the AIM-9 Sidewinder short range missile family in use by more than 40 nations throughout the world, Justus added.  

"The AIM-9X missile has been acquired by twenty international partners. It is configured for easy installation on a wide variety of modern fighter aircraft and we are excited to complete this milestone of the first AIM-9X live fire from the F-35 as we progress through the aircraft/missile integration activities," he said.  

F-35 Software

Weapons integration for the F-35 is designed to evolve in tandem with software advances for the aircraft, described as “increments.” Each increment, involving massive amounts of lines of computer code, improves the platform’s ability to integrate, carry and fire a wider range of weapons.

Block 2B, for example, is already operational and builds upon the enhanced simulated weapons, data link capabilities and early fused sensor integration of the earlier Block 2A software drop. 

Block 2B enables the JSF to provide basic close air support and fire an AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile), JDADM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) or GBU 12 (laser-guided aerial bomb), JSF program officials have said.

The next increment, Blocks 3i will increase the combat capability even further and Block 3F will bring a vastly increased ability to suppress enemy air defenses.

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