U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs and U.S. Navy F-35Cs will mature with Block 4 software upgrades. But Full F-35 Production Waits for the Biden Administration to Make Key Production Decisions. Meanwhile, the number of foreign operators of F-35B is growing.
Peter Ong story with additional reporting by Xavier Vavasseur
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s Full-Rate Production will have to wait for the Biden Administration to assume office for key production decisions and scheduling. An independent committee will help in determining how ready the F-35 is to commence full production, factoring in the need for Rare Earth Metals and the COVID pandemic.
Air Force Magazine broke the news:
“Pentagon acquisition and sustainment chief Ellen M. Lord, in a December memo, decided to extend the F-35 Operational Test and Evaluation phase past her most recent deadline of March 2021, giving the Joint Program Office until Feb. 28 to come up with a `new acquisition program baseline,’ or timetable. That timetable is to be determined in part by an `independent review’ entity, or the academic team, the JPO said.
“Lord said delays integrating the F-35 in the JSE had to do with the challenges of getting software coders together in secure facilities under pandemic conditions.”
Air Force Magazine, John A. Tirpak, January 8, 2021
F-35 Key Figures and milestones as of January 2021
According to Lockheed Martin, as of January 2021, 610+ aircraft have been delivered, over 1255 pilots and 10,030 maintainers have been trained on the aircraft, nice nations are operating F-35s on their home soil and six services have already conducted operation missions with it.
Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314 declares their initial operational capability (IOC) for the F-35C Lightning II in December 2020 while the first United States Navy F-35C TOP GUN students graduated in June 2020.
F-35 Block 4 Incremental Software Upgrades
“It [Block 4] is ongoing and will bring more capability to the warfighter through an agile development process based on incremental software upgrades, providing continuous improvements and further widening the gap over legacy platforms.”
Lockheed Martin, F-35 Spokesperson, January 14, 2021
The multi-role Short Takeoff Vertical Landing (STOVL) United States Marine Corps’ F-35Bs and the United States Navy’s catapult-launched F-35Cs are set to receive incremental Block 4 upgrades (Block 4.1, 4.2, and onwards) in the coming months.
Lockheed Martin describes the F-35’s Block 4 upgrade as a “Continuous Capability Development and Delivery” and will provide more computing power, processing power, and memory than the current F-35 computers.
Block 4 software upgrades also improves the flexibility of the F-35 with more missiles, longer ranges, and thus allow the F-35 to operate AI-flown wingmen (such as the XQ-58A “Valkyrie” Unmanned Combat Aircraft for example) through the U.S. Air Force’s Skyborg program. The improved and increased processing power will benefit the F-35B and C’s electronic warfare capabilities in jamming enemy radar and transmissions.
The increased computing power enhances the 1,000-individual transmitter/receiver units compromising the APG-81 Actively Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar where the radar beams are electronically steered for a much higher transmission rate and power than a Fourth-Generation’s mechanically steered radar antennae. According to Lockheed, the F-35’s APG-81 AESA radar, “Can see through weather and map the ground, detect moving objects on the surface, and even create a photo-like map of an area of interest that can even be shared with other aircraft or troops on the ground. …The radar is so powerful that it can even be used to jam other sensors that are trying to detect the F-35.”
More computing power also increases the performance of DAS—Distributed Aperture System—compromising of six cameras around the F-35 to create a “Sensor Fusion” picture around the aircraft. Sensor Fusion creates a single picture from all of the F-35’s sensors, decreasing the pilot’s workload in the cockpit to decipher and identify data and targets; the F-35’s Sensor Fusion tells the pilot what the radar detects and then displays the data either in the helmet visor or on the instrument panel’s “glass touchscreen.” Combined, the F-35’s Sensor Fusion and sharing of data allows F-35 wingmen to see the same picture and battlefield situation and threats without even using the radio to talk.
According to Lockheed, DAS detects data temperature differences to identify and track missile launches. DAS provides a live “Real Time” feed projected onto the pilot’s helmet visor, day or night, and even allows the pilot to “See” through the aircraft floor below him using cameras installed in the fuselage. DAS is so secret that no filming of this live video helmet visor feed has ever been publicly broadcast with the DAS Sensor Fusion examples being limited to computer-generated graphics and video from the F-35 Simulator.
The F-35’s APG-81 AESA radar, stellar computing power, Sensor Fusion, and DAS is what makes the F-35 even more powerful and useful than the older United States Air Force’s F-22 stealth fighter. Block 4 incremental software upgrades improves on these F-35 electronic digital features.
The Block 4+ upgrades also improve the ability and the fuel transfer for wing-mounted drop tanks. While external drop tanks do increase the F-35’s stealth signatures, the added range is useful for ferrying across vast distances where stealth isn’t a high priority.
“Sidekick rack,” New Missiles, and Smaller Smart weapons for the F-35
In “Beast Mode,” the F-35Bs and F-35Cs can mount ordnance on external wing pylons; however, that would increase the radar cross-section of the stealth aircraft.
A new secretive long-range missile under development, dubbed the AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile (JATM), should complement the AIM-120 AMRAAM. In addition, a new Anti-Radiation missile known as the Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile-Extended Range (AARGM-ER) is under development.
Naval News contacted Lockheed Martin about the secretive AIM-260 and was referred to the U.S. Air Force for comment. The U.S. Air Force has not replied on this new missile, but Internet sources state that the AIM-260 might fly faster than Mach 5 with a range of around 200KM (124+ miles). (The latest AIM-120D AMRAAM variant has a range of around 160KM, or greater than 84 miles). The Sidekick rail is meant to support the little extra weight of the 150.7KG (332 pound) AIM-120 air-to-air missile without adding extra drag or compromising exterior stealth characteristics since the extra missile rack occupies some of the Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) GPS bomb mounting cavity space.
With Sidekick interior AAM racks installed in each weapons bay, a stealthy flight of four U.S. Navy F-35Cs that would normally carry sixteen interior AIM-120s would now have eight more AIM-120s, or twenty-four AIM-120s total in a purely Air-to-Air combat configuration.
The F-35 can also carry future hypersonic weapons externally when these Hypersonic weapons become available.
At the Surface Navy Association 2021 Virtual Symposium that started on January 11, 2021, Lockheed Martin released an artist impression of a F-35 armed with two Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM) mounted on external wing pylons. Naval News has reached out to Lockheed Martin for further information on if the LRASM can be mounted internally and how external LRASMs might affect stealth and flight drag. Naval News received the following reply from Lockheed:
“Due to their overall size of the missiles, both JASSM and LRASM would be external carriage only. They do not fit in the internal bay of the F-35. Unfortunately, we cannot speak to specific radar cross section or stealth impacts [of hanging the LRASMs externally].”
Joseph Monaghen, Lockheed Martin LRASM Spokesperson
Lockheed Martin declined to specify how many LRASMs and JASSMs can be mounted externally on the F-35 under normal combat conditions.
The Department of Defense has also contracted for a fighter self-defense missile: “Raytheon Co. Missile Systems, Tucson, Arizona, has been awarded a $375,000,000 indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract for a miniature self-defense missile. The contract provides for the research and development of a flight-test ready missile. The first task order is $93,380,234. Work will be performed in Tucson, Arizona, and is expected to be completed by October 2023. This award is the result of a competitive acquisition and two offers were received. Fiscal 2020 research, development, test and evaluation funds in the amount of $26,712,000 are being obligated at the time of award. Air Force Research Laboratory, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, is the contracting activity (FA8651-20-D-0001).”
Incorporating such a miniature Anti-Missile missile could give naval F-35s flying in non-stealthy “Beast Mode” a counter against missile attack as they carry more external ordnance, causing a much higher F-35 radar return signature.
Also new for the F-35 is the Raytheon® Stormbreaker™ GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bomb. The GBU-53 has a range of 69 miles (110 KM) against stationary targets, and 45 miles (72 KM) against moving targets using a 109-pound warhead and costs around FY2021 $195,000 each, a fraction compared to some of the larger more expensive smart bombs.
“Both the F-35B and C aircraft were designed to be able to carry up to 24 Small Diameter Bomb II (SDB II) [Raytheon® Stormbreaker™ GBU-53/B] weapons. Eight (8) weapons, for internal carriage, will be approved for use under the Block 4 program. The aircraft can carry an additional 16 weapons externally on the four wing pylons…pending operational requirements, depending on the needs of the services,” said F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office spokesman Michael Land via email in mid-August, 2020. “Initial capability release on the F-35B is planned for 2022, and full capability on all three variants is planned for 2023.”
As of January 2021, due to the COVID pandemic and a Joseph Biden elected as the new U.S. President, the F-35 program, production, and upgrade schedules are tentative. Naval News has reached out to the Joint Program Office (JPO) of the JSF for comment in 2020 and has received a reply, but the JPO has not replied to additional Naval News questions since the November 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections.
International At-Sea Users of the F-35B STOVL variant
On the international front, there will be four at-sea users of the F-35B variant in the future: The United Kingdom, Italy, South Korea and Japan.
The British Carrier Strike Group (CSG) has reached Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in December 2020. An operational deployment later this year will see the Royal Navy HMS Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group sail in the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf and end up in the Pacific (in waters near Japan). The ship will carry 24 F-35B jets, including US Marine Corps aircraft, in addition to a number of helicopters.
Italian Navy will soon become the third “at sea” operator of the B variant after the USMC and Royal Navy. The Italian aircraft carrier Cavour is about to begin its F-35 qualification as we reported recently.
Republic of Korea
South Korea is starting its LPX-II aircraft carrier program and has committed to procure 20 F-35B to go with it.
Japan Self Defense Force
The two Izumo-class “helicopter destroyers” of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) are being refurbished in order to accommodate the F-35B. In addition, it was revealed that U.S. Marine Corps’ F-35B fighters will be the first fixed wing aircraft to fly from the Izumo-class, following a Japanese government request made in March 2019.
Singapore, F-35B and JMMS
Singapore could become the fifth nation to operate the F-35B at sea, as the South East Asia country. Singapore’s Minister of Defence made the following statement back in March 2020:
Some have asked for an update on the acquisition of the F-35s. We have decided on the F-35B variant of the aircraft, which can take-off from a shorter runway and land vertically, and it is an important feature in land scarce Singapore. The F-35B performed in the recent Singapore Airshow and its ability to swivel 360 degrees, was simply as some people said, awesome. But the F-35Bs, as Mr Kwek rightly pointed out, it has a full suite of sensors and fighting capabilities. We have obtained the US Government and Congress’ assent. MINDEF is in the final stages of acquiring four F-35s, with an option to purchase eight more. And when delivered, which we hope to be around 2026, the F-35Bs will be deployed in the US for training and in-depth evaluation.
Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the Ministry of Defence Committee of Supply Debate 2020,
In addition, the Republic of Singapore Navy has an upcoming flat deck program known as the JMMS (Joint Multi-Mission Ship) which could accommodate the F-35B aircraft.
We also reached out to Collin Koh, research fellow at the Maritime Security Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore to learn more about both programs.
Naval News – Collin, what is the reason behind Singapore’s procurement of F-35B STOVL aircraft ? Is MINDEF looking to acquire a naval aviation capability (that would be unique in South East Asia) by deploying these aircraft from future large deck amphibious vessels of the RSN ? Or is this procurement rather driven by the small footprint of Singapore as a country and by its relatively small number of airfields available to the RSAF ?
Collin Koh – The RSAF has been following a doctrine of dispersal of assets, be it in the form of training detachments overseas or locally, in the form of emergency runways for instance. For a small country with the immutable problem of a lack in strategic depth, protecting and sustaining a viable combat power in the face of an enemy onslaught could pose a challenge. So the purchase of the F-35B, which allows not only easy dispersal of air combat assets but also ease of deployment from unprepared or improvised airstrips and sites in land-scarce Singapore makes total sense. The other characteristic of Singapore’s defence policy is also the incorporation of redundancies with the future in mind. This means, even if there’s no immediate plan for the F-35Bs to serve on a naval asset such as the JMMS, this latent capability presents such a viable option in the future depending on how the threat landscape develops. The F-35B is versatile enough to not just serve as a naval aviation capability if the decision is so made to acquire it, but also be deployed on both the main island of Singapore as well as the numerous smaller outlying offshore islands.
Naval News – What is the time frame and status of the LHD procurement by the RSN ? Does ST Marine/ST Engineering have the industrial capability to build such a large vessel ?
Collin Koh – Based on the SAF modernization vision till 2030, we might be looking at this present decade ahead, i.e. 2020-2030. 10 years to develop the JMMS which is potentially a LHD-type amphibious assault landing vessel is reasonable, considering the associated systems and knowhow that have to be developed to constitute the entire capability. ST Marine is definitely capable of building this ship. It might not be wholly self-sufficient in this regard – it still has to source components abroad such as sensors, though it could well use several indigenous ones such as combat management system, EW suite, etc. And most importantly, as demonstrated in its past and present stable of naval vessels being built, ST Marine is able to perform systems integration which is a crucial effort.