Weapon Systems

Linked communications make F-35A 'quarterback' of the battlefield


The F-35's sensor fusion systems allow it to accelerate critical decision-making, offering a significant edge for the United States and its partners in modern warfare.

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The F-35A acts as an 'information and communications gateway' to enhance the capabilities of other assets across air, land, sea, space and cyberspace. [Lockheed Martin]
The F-35A acts as an 'information and communications gateway' to enhance the capabilities of other assets across air, land, sea, space and cyberspace. [Lockheed Martin]

The US Air Force's F-35A Lightning II can act as an "information and communications gateway" to enhance the capabilities of joint force and allied assets across air, land, sea, space and cyberspace.

The Lightning II has three variants.

The F-35A, used by the US Air Force, is the conventional takeoff and landing variant.

The US Marine Corps uses F-35Bs, which "can land vertically like a helicopter and take off in very short distances. This allows it to operate from austere, short-field bases and a range of air-capable ships", according to Lockheed Martin.

The F-35A is the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world, according to manufacturer Lockheed Martin. [Lockheed Martin]
The F-35A is the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world, according to manufacturer Lockheed Martin. [Lockheed Martin]

The third variant is the US Navy's F-35Cs, the carrier variant, which can take off from any US aircraft carrier anywhere on earth.

All three versions have the most advanced sensor suite of any fighter in history, according to manufacturer Lockheed Martin, collecting a vast amount of information that its sensor fusion systems translate into a "single integrated picture of the battlefield."

Such systems are what make the aircraft stand out the most from fourth-generation aircraft, pilots have said.

"It allows extreme situational awareness ­-- more than any other platform that we've generated, at least that I've flown," Lockheed Martin F-35 Test Pilot Chris "Worm" Spinelli, who spent 24 years in the US Air Force, told the National Interest in September 2021.

Not only can the F-35 accelerate critical decision-making and win the fight, it serves as an "information and communications gateway," according to Lockheed Martin.

This role allows for unmatched data sharing with other ground, sea and air assets.

Capable of acting in multiple roles at the same time, the F-35A offers an edge for pilots, the United States and US partners in the joint all domain battle space.

Pilots say it is this "alliance effect" -- which relies on sensors, data, and instantaneous communication -- that is changing warfare, Fortune reported this month.

"The F-35s are netted together. Whatever one person sees, everybody sees. And that is something that I don't think folks really understood -- how powerful it was going to be," Santi Bulnes, Lockheed Martin's vice president of engineering and technology for aeronautics, told Fortune.

A 'force multiplier'

The Air Force's F-35As act as a "force multiplier," and can enhance assets such as Navy destroyers USS Thomas Hudner, USS Paul Hamilton and the USS McFaul, which together can carry almost 300 missiles, including Tomahawk cruise missiles.

The three ships are deployed now in the US Central Command area of responsibility, which includes the Middle East and West/Central Asia.

These Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are equipped with the Aegis Combat System -- an integrated naval weapon system that uses computer and radar to guide various weapons to strike targets -- and are capable of sharing information with other ships and aircraft.

The F-35, besides being an invaluable auxiliary to an Aegis system, adds to the power and reach of Tomahawk cruise missiles, which can defeat targets at a range of up to 1,500 miles (2,414km).

The US military feeds the Tomahawk with data from a variety of sources: aircraft, drones, satellites, troops, tanks and ships. Those aircraft include the F-35, which can identify targets on a stealth mission.

The F-35 can stealthily approach the enemy and gather information from its own sensors as well as from ground vehicles, drones, other aircraft and ships.

Lockheed Martin says the F-35's stealth capabilities give it "an unmatched ability to evade enemy detection and enter contested airspace."

Integrated capabilities

The F-35's ability to share information across air, land, sea, space and cyberspace has been proven successful in flight tests and exercises.

During a July 2021 US Army flight test, the fighter acted in its capacity as an "elevated sensor" to help a PAC-3 air defense missile intercept a surrogate cruise missile threat at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

The flight test was the first time that F-35 data contributed to the global track used by the US Army Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS) to live fire a PAC-3.

Citing the flight test as an example, Lockheed Martin calls the fighter the most advanced node in 21st century network-centric warfare.

"In the F-35, we're the quarterback of the battlefield," Maj. Justin "Hasard" Lee, a US Air Force F-35 pilot instructor, told Popular Mechanics in April 2022.

"Our job is to make everyone around us better."

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