What if Korean, Japanese, Australian, and U.S. F-35s, fighter jets, drones along with Navy surface ships could all track Chinese activities throughout the Pacific, all while sharing information in near real-time?
Chinese war preparation drills near Taiwan, carrier excursions into the South China Sea, bomber patrols, or flight intercepts off the Japanese coast might all be found, seen, and analyzed far and wide in previously impossible ways. Just how far along are the United States and its network of Pacific theater allies in bringing this kind of tactical vision to life?
The first of the Royal Australian Air Force’s F-35s are now operational, a development that adds substantial strength and reach to a fast-growing allied fleet of F-35s in the Pacific theater, including Japan and South Korea.
Australia now operates thirty-three F-35As, bringing fifth-generation strike and reconnaissance plane to southern portions of the Pacific theater, something which complements Japan’s soon-to-be large fleet of F-35s. Moreover, F-35s based in Australia make high-tension areas such as the South China Sea more accessible to such stealth aircraft, offering new opportunities to defend contested areas and potentially further bolster protections for Taiwan.
The largest advantage of having more F-35s in Australia, most likely, resides in its ability to contribute to an interwoven intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) web of interconnected nodes. The much-discussed “Tyranny of Distances” challenges throughout the vast and expansive region making ISR reach more difficult can in part be ameliorated by the presence of greater numbers of F-35s. This is significant not only due to the F-35s drone-like sensors such as its 360-degree Distributed Aperture System of cameras, but the emerging prospect of having F-35 cockpits operate the flight path and sensor payload of nearby drones.
Operating in this way, which is soon to be a reality, can enable F-35 pilots to see real-time video feeds from drones with much-decreased latency, as the data will not need to route through a ground control system. This technology, in development for several years, is for F-35 and the F-22, as it could exponentially multiply an ability to cover an area with ISR, provided the data networking is successful and secure.
Take the South China Sea, for instance, as it was merely a few years ago when Navy P-8 Poseidon submarine-hunting ISR aircraft picked up images showing China’s phony island-building in the contested island areas. Given that China is now known to have placed weapons, including the possibility of anti-aircraft guns, on some of the island areas, have a web of unmanned systems able to patrol the region not only reduces risk to manned crews but massively expands the surveillance reach for U.S. allies.
Perhaps F-35s could one day soon coordinate and analyze ISR data among a small fleet of manned and unmanned air assets, including the Guam-based Triton maritime surveillance drone or even other attack platforms. This kind of connectivity can even extend to Aegis-equipped Navy surface ships, which can receive targeting information directly through the F-35 Multifunction Advanced Data Link, according to an interesting 2016 report from the U.S. Naval Institute.
Manned-unmanned teaming with F-35s and drones, coupled with F-35 air to surface ISR networking, intelligence sharing and target coordination, in near real-time, is exactly aligned with the Pentagon’s strategy to strengthen and increase ISR is the massively spread apart or dispersed Pacific theater.
The F-35 has also, of great significance, been demonstrated as an aerial-relay surveillance node in a now-deployed system called Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA). The technology uses an aerial node such as a Hawkey surveillance plane or even an F-35 to connect over-the-horizon sensor data with surface ship radar to track approaching enemy missile threats such as incoming anti-ship missiles. Then, all as part of an integrated system, NIFC-CA networks, and SM-6 interceptor missile to follow targeting cues from the aerial relay platform to track and destroy the approaching threat at much greater distances than would otherwise be possible. While first deployed on Navy destroyers operating in tandem with E2D Hawkeye airplanes, NIFC-CA has been successfully demonstrated with an F-35 operating as the aerial sensor node.
There is no reason allied F-35s might not be able to connect to this kind of targeting, sensor-to-shooter technical system, a development which greatly expands the defensive and even offensive attack reach in spread out, geographically expansive areas such as the Pacific. Australia, it seems, could play a part here with its F-35s.
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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.