An airborne F-35 jet recently sent targeting specifics to a ground-based Patriot missile fire control system to track and destroy an approaching cruise missile threat. This small feat shows that the Pentagon has taken a step closer to realizing its multi-year vision for cross-domain combat connectivity.
A Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile intercepted a surrogate cruise missile using an F-35 jet as an “elevated sensor” at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
The event took place as part of a live-fire demonstration of the Army’s Integrated Battle Command System (IBCS) of networked missile defense “nodes.” These nodes actualize the Pentagon’s longstanding goal to operate a multi-domain, integrated network of “meshed” nodes dispersed throughout an area of operations to share threat data, process and track key information and massively reduce sensor-to-shooter time for commanders facing threats in war.
It is not surprising that an F-35 jet could function in this capacity as an aerial relay node, given the range and sensitivity of its onboard sensors. Incoming F-35 sensor data is organized by artificial-intelligence-enabled high-speed computing which “fuses’ otherwise disparate pools of combat critical data. The F-35 jet’s electro-optical targeting system and distributed aperture system use long-range, high-fidelity infrared and electro-optical cameras to gather threat information, which is then analyzed, processed, organized and displayed for pilots in a position to further network the information.
Tracking a maneuvering, high-speed cruise missile from a distant aerial location gives ground-based air defenders a much greater operational time window within which to intercept, strike or destroy the approaching threat. Lockheed’s Hit-to-Kill Missile was launched during the test to intercept and destroy the incoming cruise missile.
The F-35 jet has been used with IBCS before but this most recent intercept broke new ground in several key respects. While an Army program, IBCS is intended to operate as a major contribution to the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control effort to synergize, network and integrate communication nodes from air-land-and-sea locations in real-time. Using a common network system, nodes within an IBCS umbrella, such as a Patriot Missile battery or Sentinel radar system can share threat data and target track information across otherwise separated operational areas.
The threat intercept was also completed in an electronic attack environment, according to a Northrop Grumman statement, which said that the IBCS test involved the launch of two surrogate cruise missiles. One of the cruise missiles performed the electronic attack mission to challenge the radar, while the other missile was launched to strike the target.
The latest flight test success integrated the widest variety of sensors to date for an IBCS test, including one Marine Corps Ground/Air Task-Oriented Radar, two Army Sentinel radars, one Army Patriot radar and two U.S. Air Force F-35 fighter aircraft.
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 Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.