Articles

How the F-35 proved it can take enemy airspace without firing a shot

An F-35B carried out a remarkable test where its sensors spotted an airborne target, sent the data to an Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense site, and had the land-based outpost fire a missile to defeat the target — thereby destroying an airborne adversary without firing a single shot of its own.


This development simultaneously vindicates two of the US military's most important developments: The F-35 and the Naval Integrated Fire Control Counterair Network (NIFC-CA).

Also read: Before the F-35, these 10 airplanes became legends after rough starts

Essentially, the NIFC-CA revolutionizes naval targeting systems by combining data from a huge variety of sensors to generate targeting data that could be used to defeat incoming threats.

So now with this development, an F-35 can pass targeting data to the world's most advanced missile defense system, an Aegis site, that would fire its own missile, likely a SM-6, to take out threats in the air, on land, or at sea.

This means that an F-35 can stealthily enter heavily contested enemy air space, detect threats, and have them destroyed by a missile fired from a remote site, like an Aegis land site or destroyer, without firing a shot and risking giving up its position.

The SM-6, the munition of choice for Aegis destroyers, is a 22-foot long supersonic missile that can seek out, maneuver, and destroy airborne targets like enemy jets or incoming cruise or ballistic missiles.

The SM-6's massive size prohibits it from being equipped to fighter jets, but now, thanks to the integration of the F-35 with the NIFC-CA, it doesn't have to.

The SM-6, as effective and versatile as it is, can shoot further than the Aegis sites can see. The F-35, as an ultra connective and stealthy jet, acts as an elevated, highly mobile sensor that extends the effective range of the missile.

This joint capability helps assuage fears over the F-35's limited capacity to carry ordnance. The jet's stealth design means that all weapons have to be stored internally, and this strongly limits the plane's overall ordnance capacity.

This limiting factor has drawn criticism from pundits more fond of traditional jet fighting approaches. However, it seems the F-35's connectivity has rendered this point a non-issue.

Demonstration shows capability to extend the battlefront using Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA). | Lockheed Martin photo

Overall, the F-35 and NIFC-CA integration changes the game when it comes to the supposed anti-access/area denial bubbles created by Russia and China's advanced air defenses and missiles.

"One of the key defining attributes of a 5th Generation fighter is the force multiplier effect it brings to joint operations through its foremost sensor fusion and external communications capabilities," said Orlando Carvalho, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, said in a statement.

"NIFC-CA is a game changer for the US Navy that extends the engagement range we can detect, analyze and intercept targets," said Dale Bennett, another Lockheed Martin vice president in the statement.

"The F-35 and Aegis Weapon System demonstration brings us another step closer to realizing the true potential and power of the worldwide network of these complex systems to protect and support warfighters, the home front and US allies."

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