MIGHTY TACTICAL

The F-35 can now act as the eyes of the fleet

Thanks to an upgrade to a ship-communication system, the F-35 Lightning II can now feed all of its target data back to the fleet it launched from, enabling surface forces to prosecute any enemy forces within its range.

(Airman 1st Class Alexander Cook)

The F-35 Lightning II, designed to be a stealthy sensor platform that can fly and fight nearly anywhere in the world, can now feed its targeting data back to Navy ships, allowing the task force to engage dozens of targets without the F-35 having to fire its own weapons and break stealth.


A Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II takes off from the HMS Queen Elizabeth on October 9, 2018, with inert GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs.

The change comes thanks to an upgrade on the ship side, not on the Lightning II. Basically, the Navy has a communications system known as the Ship Self Defense System. SSDS is typically built into carrier strike groups and the larger amphibious ships, like Landing Helicopter Assault and Landing Helicopter Dock ships.

So, basically anything that an F-35 can take off from. But now, the SSDS on the USS Wasp can accept communications from the F-35's Link 16 Digital Air Control. This allows the F-35 to directly feed its sensor data into the fleet's communications.

The most important application of this capability is that commanders can now see what the Lightning II sees and order surface ships to engage targets with missiles, other aircraft, or even naval artillery if it's in range.

The amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) steams through the Mediterranean Sea.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ryan G. Coleman)

This will be a huge boost for the F-35 in a war. F-35s and F-22 Raptors can't carry many missiles and bombs while remaining stealthy, and firing their weapons can give away their positions.

Additionally, the fleet has many more missiles than the planes can carry — and that can be key during a complex fight. If Marines are landing ashore, they don't want to hear that their air support is running low on missiles. They want to hear that there's an endless rain of effects coming their way, and that all of them are going to be digitally targeted against the most dangerous threats.

While the digital communications upgrade is currently only placed on the USS Wasp, the rest of the carrier and LHA/LHD groups will receive it in the near future.

U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Michael Lippert, test pilot with the F-35 Pax River Integrated Test Force, continues First of Class Flight Trials (Fixed Wing) developmental test flights aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth on Sept. 30, 2018.

(U.S. Navy photo by Dane Wiedmann)

In addition to passing targeting data, the F-35 sends back its status information, like fuel and weapon inventories, while receiving information from the mission commander, like assignment information.

The F-35 has been America's single-most expensive weapons system in history, but senior generals have insisted for years that the troubled program would be worth it when it came to fruition. As setbacks, costs, and technological failures mounted, it seemed like the platform would never live up to its hype. And that would've been a huge deal since the plane is expected to fly until 2070 and to cost $1.5 trillion over the program's lifetime.

But the Thunderbolt II has matured in the last few years, and breakthroughs like this one will continue to improve the F-35's public image.