Tracking ballistic missiles in space, finding incoming anti-ship missiles and offering forward video-datalink images of enemies from safe stand-off distances are all missions perhaps not typically thought of for the F-35.
However, in recent years the Pentagon has increasingly been developing the F-35 for a wide swath of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. The idea would be to leverage its advanced suite of long-range sensors and targeting technologies. In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that the F-35 can function as a long-range drone, aerial relay node, missile tracker or surveillance plane.
Its 360-degree surround cameras, called the Distributed Aperture System, and its long-range Electro-Optical infrared targeting technologies were initially conceived as a way to inform pilots about far away enemy aircraft and provide navigational information to empower its multi-role attack mission set.
Much of the concept of these sensors was to better enable pilots with the organized sensor information sufficient to prevail in combat, and to often see enemy targets well before the F-35s themselves are detected. For instance, on-board computer systems, including automation and early application of artificial intelligence, are intended to gather, analyze, organize and present a range of sensors into a single screen for pilots.
While all of this is still true and quite relevant, the Pentagon has increasingly been discovering new uses for the F-35 when it comes to an ability to function as an “aerial node” performing ISR and datalink missions. With a fleet-wide data link and growing “threat library,” the F-35s can network to one another at great distances, enabling an ability to establish a continuous track on traveling threats moving from one field of view to another.
Moreover, the Pentagon recently utilized the F-35 in a host of multi-domain combat attack missions, including networking threat information from incoming air attacks with maritime, air and ground assets. Ultimately, would involve an integrated mesh of sensors and radar called Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS). Alongside connecting with IBCS, an F-35 was also able to connect with a U-2 spy plane to form an “airborne relay” using Lockheed’s Airborne Sensor Adaptation Kit.
During a recent Lockheed Martin Orange Flag evaluation near Edwards Air Force Base, California, the F-35 was used to provide “track data” to a surrogate IBCS system. IBCS is an Army system intended to mesh radar nodes to one another across otherwise disparate or tough-to-network combat locations. This naturally expands the protective air-defense network by sharing threat data.
The Army’s IBCS has been increasingly successful for the Army as a technological system intended to improve threat-detection by connecting areas or enemy activity data across dispersed, multi-domain areas. For example, one such area in need of networked threat-detection could be rigorous terrain or places with rugged maritime and weather conditions spread across land and sea attack positions.
“IBCS is in theory the ability to link multiple sensors to an air defense system. Right now, if a defense system is a Patriot missile, you have a Patriot radar. If it’s a THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense), it has a TPY-2 THAAD radar. We’ve got several radars for different systems. IBCS brings the ability to take any sensor and link it to just about any air defense system to include some of our artillery sensors and counterfire sensors,” General John Murray, Commanding General of Army Futures Command, told The National Interest in an interview earlier this year.
Kris Osborn is 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.