As rival powers develop increasingly capable air-defense networks, the US military is working with defense firms to arm the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter with a missile able to destroy these systems at long range.
Lockheed Martin has been awarded a $34.7 million contract to modify the stealth jet's internal weapons bay to carry "aft heavy weaponry," the Department of Defense announced July 2019.
The "aft heavy weaponry" referenced in the announcement is the Navy's Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile — Extended Range (AARGM-ER), a standoff weapon designed to target enemy radar systems from outside the range of enemy air-defense assets, a source close to the project told Aviation Week.
Northrop Grumman, which is responsible for the development of the AARGM-ER, has said that this long-range weapon can be deployed from a "sanctuary," a protected area presumably beyond the reach of Chinese and Russian anti-access area-denial capabilities.
U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Samuel King Jr.)
The exact range of the weapon is classified, although there are reports that it could be in excess of 120 miles, significantly farther than the 60 to 80 miles of the AGM-88E AARGM.
The US Navy began developing the AARGM-ER, officially designated the AGM-88G, nearly two years ago with reported plans to field this weapon on nonstealthy fourth-generation fighters like the carrier-based F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and the electronic attack EA-18G Growlers sometime in the early 2020s.
The service is expected to later integrate the missile into the weapons bay of the fifth-generation F-35Cs, which only recently achieved initial operating capability.
The Air Force, also a part of the project, is expected to field the AGM-88G on its F-35As around 2025. The Marine Corps F-35Bs, because of the presence of the lift fan, has very limited space in its internal weapons bay.
F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter in-flight missile launch.
(F-35 Program Office)
The F-35 modifications, which will involve changes to the Station 425 bulkhead in the weapons bay, will also allow the advanced fighters to carry more air-to-air missiles internally, Aviation Week reported. The "Sidekick" modification, as the program is called, will allow the F-35 to carry six AIM-120 radar-guided air-to-air missiles, instead of four, internally.
The ability to store more firepower in the weapons bay rather than externally allows the F-35 to maintain its all-aspect stealth in combat. Storing the weapons on the outside in the "beast-mode" configuration allows the aircraft to carry more weapons overall, but it increases the size of the jet's radar signature, making it easier to detect.
The modifications will be made at a facility in Fort Worth, Texas, and completed in 2022.
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