U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in the Baltics are Ready to Go Into 'Beast Mode'

U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in the Baltics are Ready to Go Into 'Beast Mode'

An F-35 operating in "beast mode" could carry a full 22,000 lbs. of ordnance, including air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions.  

A well-armed Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter brings to mind an oft-quoted line from the fictional Bruce Banner before transforming into the Hulk: "You won't like me when I'm angry." That sentiment could certainly be directed at anyone foolish enough to confront an F-35 operating in "beast mode," where it could carry a full 22,000 lbs of ordnance, including air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions.

Last week it was reported that six U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs—the conventional takeoff and landing variant—had been repositioned to the Baltic Sea region to support ongoing NATO Enhanced Air Police missions, and at least one of those aircraft was seen in a photo posted to social media without Radar Cross Section (RCS) enhancers and radar reflectors installed. That would mean that the F-35 might have been operating in its "stealthiest configuration."

In contrast, at least three Royal Air Force (RAF) F-35B Lightning IIs—the short-takeoff/vertical-landing (STVOL) variant—have been seen at RAF Marham in Norfolk, reportedly ready to deploy in the aforementioned beast mode. Precision ordnance that could be carried on the RAF fighters includes Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), Paveway bombs, and the Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW).

The three new £100 million F-35B Lightning IIs were flown from Texas by the 207 Squadron to reinforce the existing squadron at RAF Marham. The RAF pilots have likely been preparing for large-scale, full-load attack as part of their training with the fifth-generation stealth fighter.

Heavy Bomber

As previously reported, decreasing stealth properties would not render the F-35 ineffective given that F-35 is built for heavy bombing as well as reconnaissance missions. Thinking of these together, an F-35 could use its electro-optical/infra-red (EO-IR) cameras and surrounding sensors to find far-away ground targets autonomously and then attack them from the air with bombs.

That would be a massive increase in efficiency as the aircraft could respond to new intelligence information in real-time, thereby greatly reducing latency and sensor-to-shooter time. Moreover, the F-35's often-discussed “sensor fusion” could also play a role, as it relies on computer automation and artificial intelligence to gather otherwise separate sensor information, analyze, and organize it to provide pilots with a single integrated picture. Navigational, targeting, and electronic-related metrics can all be merged by the aircraft itself.

RAF Deployment

It is unclear if the F-35s that have arrived at RAF Marham will be taking part in the NATO Enhanced Air Police, but last week an undisclosed number of Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 aircraft began to take part in the planned Enhanced Vigilance Activity, which is a NATO-led operation initiated due to the unfolding events in Ukraine.

The skies over eastern Europe may have become the best place to see modern combat aircraft in operation, as more than 100 fighters are currently deployed as part of the NATO mission. The coalition currently includes Polish F-16s, F-35 Lightning IIs from the United States and the Netherlands, F-15Es also from the United States, Rafales from France, and Typhoons from the RAF.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

Image: Reuters.