The F-35, the most expensive weapons system in history that boosters say can do just about anything in aerial combat, could have a new mission: shooting down intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Ballistic missiles, like the kind North Korea has been perfecting with the goal of being able to reach the U.S. with a nuclear warhead, pose a huge threat to the U.S. as they reenter the atmosphere at over a dozen times the speed of sound.
The U.S. uses advanced radars and ground-based missile interceptors without explosive charges to "hit to kill" incoming missiles. This method has been compared to hitting a bullet with a bullet, and it has really only been successful against unsophisticated, short-range targets or test dummies.
But there's plenty of reason to doubt the U.S.'s missile defenses against North Korea would work. And advanced ICBMs with multiple warheads or decoy warheads could most likely confuse missile defenses and render them useless.
But as an ICBM takes off the launchpad and lurches up to speed, the entire missile, warhead and all, is a single target.
At that point, why not shoot it down with an air-to-air missile from an F-35?
U.S. Marine Corps F-35 Lightning II aircraft and F-18 Hornets assigned to Naval Air Station Pensacola fly over the northwest coast of Florida May 15, 2013. | Department of Defense photo
The F-35 as a missile interceptor
The US Air Force has, for decades, had air-to-air missiles that lock on to hot, flying targets, and an ICBM in its first stage is essentially that.
In 2007, Lockheed Martin got $3 million to look into an air-to-air hit-to-kill missile system. In 2014, a test seemed to prove the concept.
But the F-35 program, usually not one to shy away from boasting about its achievements, has been hushed about the prospect of using it to defeat one of the gravest threats to the U.S.
"I can tell you that the F-35 is a multi-mission fighter," Cmdr. Patrick Evans of the Office of the Secretary of Defense told Business Insider when asked about the program. "It would be inappropriate to speculate on future capabilities or missions of the weapon system."
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, was more open to speculating about why the Pentagon hadn't gone through with missile-intercepting planes.
"Very simple — what we're trying to do is shoot [air-to-air missiles] off F-35s in the first 300 seconds it takes for the missile to go up in the air," Hunter said during a November meeting on Capitol Hill with the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, according to Inside Defense.
Hunter also pointed out that in some places North Korea is just 75 miles across — well within the F-35's missile range, Aviation Week noted.
Hunter blamed a broken defense industrial complex for not picking up the air-to-air intercept sooner while spending $40 billion on ground-based missile interception.
"There's not a retired general that works for Company A that says, 'I would like to do that thing that costs no money and it doesn't get me a contract,'" Hunter said, according to Inside Defense. "No one says that."
An F-35 missile intercept over North Korea may be an act of war
An F-35 Lightning II fires a missile while inverted. (Photo from F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office)
The present crisis with North Korea may demand some expediency from the Pentagon regarding the F-35.
The F-35, with its all-aspect stealth, is ideal for breaking into North Korea's protected airspace. It can already use the air-to-air missile in question, and its sensor fusion would make it the best plane for the job.
The drawback, though, is that the F-35 would need to get close to the target missile as it's leaving the launchpad, which could mean firing interceptor missiles over enemy territory — something North Korea could see as an act of war.
If North Korea were to actually threaten the U.S. or its allies with a missile, an F-35 intercept could be a game-changer. The U.S. reportedly knew about North Korea's latest launch three days in advance, despite the North's efforts to hide preparations. In a similar situation, the U.S. would have plenty of time to get the F-35s in place.
But the F-35 was already a nightmare for North Korean defenses before the prospect of using it to intercept a missile came up, and it's unclear how Pyongyang would react to the stealth plane going anywhere near its borders.
For now, at least one member of the House Armed Services Committee seems to think the F-35 is the best bet for giving the U.S. an advantage over North Korea's nuclear program.