The Air Force is working to find new ways for the F-35 stealth fighter jet to operate in tandem with heavily armed fourth-generation fighters by taking advantage of its stealth characteristics and electronic warfare attack weapons. This is part of an effort to combine the ability to get “close” to an enemy yet still benefit from weapons available to less-stealthy aircraft armed with heavy weapons on external pylons.
Some of these maneuvers, described by Air Force developers as “tactics improvement proposals,” were demonstrated at the service’s recent Northern Edge wargame in Alaska.
“As a [fifth-generation] asset, we have stealth, so we can physically get closer, but we may not have all the weapons that a [fourth-generation] aircraft, like a [F-15] Strike Eagle, does,” F-35 Pilot Maj. Scott Portue said, according to an Air Force press statement. “We’re trying to figure out how [these platforms] can benefit each other so that we can get closer to the adversary,”
Some of the newer functions of the F-35 jet are enabled by a recently fielded effort called “Operational Flight Program,” a software upgrade intended to expand data sharing and connectivity between fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft. The emerging technology was fielded not long ago at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and more recently put into operational context at the service’s Northern Edge wargame in Alaska.
While able to carry fewer total external weapons than a fourth-generation aircraft, the F-35 jet’s ability to use an internal weapons bay to fire weapons while preserving stealth mode brings substantial attack possibilities potentially in closer proximity than a non-stealth aircraft can. The F-35 jet has the ability to use its internal weapons bay for traditional air-dropped bombs such as joint direct attack munitions or laser-guided ground-based missiles. It also has extremely lethal air-to-air weapons, too, like the AIM-9X Sidewinder missile and the AIM-120D Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile. The F-35 jet also operates with a cutting-edge electronic warfare weapons suite potentially able to supplement or fortify weapons attacks.
Having a fourth-generation aircraft in close proximity to an F-35 jet could potentially cause a problem in terms of compromising the jet’s stealth advantage and giving away that aircraft are in the area. The F-35 jet also has an unprecedented sensor detection range, which means it might be in a position to launch attacks from advantageous standoff ranges. That’s the kind of advantage a fourth-generation aircraft could diminish.
Nonetheless, the Air Force press statement makes the important point that a fourth-generation warning radar, such as the F-15s Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System could help enable an F-35 jet to get close to an enemy without having to use its own radar or electronic warfare system. These technologies, if used, could emit a signal or signature potentially detectable by an enemy.
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.