The Air Force expects to operationalize the F-35’s latest “3F” software iteration by October or September of this year, a development which will integrate additional technology and equip the stealth aircraft with a wider range of weapons such as the Small Diameter Bomb and AIM-9X, service leaders said.
After experiencing some challenges during developmental testing, the 3F software drop is now improved and sharpened up for delivery, Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, director, F-35 Integration Office, told Scout Warrior amidst a small group of reporters.
Engineers made specific efforts to identify and resolve any emerging issues, he explained.
“They are encouraged by the things that they found during developmental testing. They have not seen any show-stoppers in stability or capability at all. There are no ongoing issues with the things they repaired,” Pleus said. “Pilots are very encouraged by what they have seen.”
Many of the JSF’s combat capabilities are woven into developmental software increments or “drops,” each designed to advance the platform’s technical abilities. There are more than 10 million individual lines of code in the JSF system.
Block 3F will increase the weapons delivery capacity of the JSF as well, giving it the ability to drop a Small Diameter Bomb, 500-pound JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) and AIM-9X short-range air-to-air missile, service officials explained.
The AIM-9X is an Air Force and Navy heat-seeking infrared missile.
The AIM-9X missile, which can also be fired at surface-to-air and air-to-surface, is currently in use on a number of existing fighter aircraft such as the Air Force’s F-15E and F-16 and the Navy’s F-18 Super Hornet.
Engineered by Raytheon, the newest AIM-9X Block II weapons are built with a redesigned fuse for increased safety and a lock-on-launch capability. The missile is also configured with a data link to support what’s called “beyond visual range” engagements, meaning targets at much farther ranges picked up by sensors or early warning radar. This could provide a fighter jet with an ability to destroy enemy targets in the air while remaining at a safer stand-off distance less exposed to hostile fire.
"The AIM-9X Sidewinder is an infrared-guided, air-to-air missile employing a focal plane array sensor for unparalleled target acquisition and tracking, augmented by jet vane control technology for extreme maneuverability against a variety of high performance threats,” Mark Justus, Raytheon AIM-9X program director, told Scout Warrior in a written statement last year. "The missile also has proven capability in air-to-surface and demonstrated capability in surface-to-air missions."
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter fired an AIM-9X Sidewinder infrared-guided air-to-air missile for the first time over a Pacific Sea Test Range last year, Pentagon officials said.
The F-35 took off from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and launched the missile at 6,000 feet, an Air Force statement said..
Designed as part of the developmental trajectory for the emerging F-35, the test-firing of the AIM-9X was intended to further the missile's ability to fire “off-boresight." This is described as an ability to target and destroy air to air targets that are not in front of the aircraft with a direct or immediate line of sight, Pentagon officials explained.
Previous test data and observers have confirmed the F-35 identified and targeted the drone with its mission systems sensors, passed the target ‘track’ information to the missile, enabled the pilot to verify targeting information using the high off-boresight capability of the helmet mounted display and launched the AIM-9X from the aircraft to engage the target drone, a statement from the Pentagon's Joint Strike Fighter Program Office said.
“If you think of a boresight in terms of a firearm… that’s the adjustments made to an optical sight, to align the barrel of a firearm with the sights. If you think of it in aircraft terms… traditionally air-to-air missiles are fired at targets in front of the them,” Joint Strike Fighter Program Office spokesman Joe DellaVedova, told Scout Warrior.
The AIM-9X, he described, incorporates an agile thrust vector controlled airframe.
“For example, instead of having to position the aircraft directly in front or behind the enemy fighter… a high off-boresight weapon enables the pilot to just look to the left, right or up and down to engage a target, fire it and the missile locks on for the kill,” he explained.
Immediately prior to the test-launching of the AIM-9X, a test pilot employed an internally carried AIM-120C missile against another target drone. This target was beyond visual range and the AIM-120C was given a successful self-destruct signal right before target impact, Pentagon statements said.
The AIM-9X Block II is the current version of the AIM-9 Sidewinder short range missile family in use by more than 40 nations throughout the world, Justus added.
"The AIM-9X missile has been acquired by twenty international partners. It is configured for easy installation on a wide variety of modern fighter aircraft and we are excited to complete this milestone of the first AIM-9X live fire from the F-35 as we progress through the aircraft/missile integration activities," he said.
4th Software Drop
The 3F software drop is preceded by earlier increments, each one bringing new technical integration to the aircraft.
Block 2B builds upon the enhanced simulated weapons, datalink capabilities and early fused sensor integration of the earlier Block 2A software drop. Block 2B will enable the JSF to provide basic close-air support and fire an AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile), JDAM or GBU-12 (laser-guided aerial bomb), JSF program officials said.
Following Block 2B, Block 3i increases the combat capability even further, and Block 3F will bring a vastly increased ability to suppress enemy air defenses.
Called 3F, the service is already working on a 4th drop to be ready by 2020 or 2021. Following the drop of 3F, the aircraft will incorporate new software drops in two-year increments in order to stay ahead of the threat.
The first portion of Block 4 software funding, roughly $12 million, arrived in the 2014 budget, Air Force officials said.
Block 4 will include some unique partner weapons including British weapons, Turkish weapons and some of the other European country’s weapons that they want to get on their own plane, service officials explained.
Block 4 will also increase the weapons envelope for the U.S. variant of the fighter jet. A big part of the developmental calculus for Block 4 is to work on the kinds of enemy air defense systems and weaponry the aircraft may face from the 2020’s through the 2040’s and beyond.
In terms of weapons, Block 4 will eventually enable the F-35 to fire cutting edge weapons systems such as the Small Diameter Bomb II and GBU-54 – both air-dropped bombs able to destroy targets on-the-move.
The Small Diameter Bomb II uses a technology called a tri-mode seeker, drawing from infrared, millimeter wave and laser-guidance. The combination of these sensors allows the weapon to track and eliminate moving targets in all kinds of weather conditions.
This first appeared in Scout Warrior here.
Image Credit: Creative Commons.