The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has made headlines for years now, though very rarely for anything other than set backs, cost overruns, and subsequent orders for more of the troubled air-frame. The fighter, which the United States and its allies tout at the most advanced military aircraft on the planet, has yet to really prove its worth in combat, and rumors continue to swirl about just how capable the F-35 would be if it ever had to engage other advanced fighters like Russia’s advanced 4th generation jets, or China’s recently unveiled 5th generation copies of America’s aerial prize fighters.
Lockheed, of course, has changed their tune regarding the F-35’s dog fighting capabilities over the years of development. Originally, champions of the program claimed it would be superior to its international air-to-air competitors, but it soon became clear that the F-35 would be heavier, slower, and less maneuverable than America’s other 5th generation stealth fighter, the now canceled F-22 Raptor, and claims regarding the F-35 shifted to incorporate a different combat strategy.
The F-35, Lockheed explained, would use a combination of stealth, optics, and advanced weapons systems to engage enemy aircraft from the other side of the horizon, eliminating the need for “Top Gun” style fly-by combat. However, even with that understanding, the F-35 still faces another set back when it comes to engaging enemy aircraft: the jet’s internal air-to-air missile carriage capability is limited to just four missiles.
With a growing emphasis on the threats posed by near-peer opponents like China (who has already begun fielding their F-22 competitor, the J-20, and is expected to launch their F-35 approximation, the J-31, next year) and Russia, whose 4++ generation Su-35 boasts maneuverability arguably comparable to America’s F-22, Lockheed may be feeling some heat regarding their crown jewel aircraft. The F-35 relies on advanced stealth technology as one of its primary defensive measures, leaning heavily on beyond-line-of-sight armaments, but with a maximum capacity of only four air-to-air missiles, American jets could easily find themselves outgunned in a skirmish with Chinese or Russian fighters.
Lockheed’s solution? Screw stealth and cover the thing in missiles.
This new loadout, proudly displayed on Lockheed’s website under the meme-friendly heading, “beast mode,” isn’t technically real. In fact, the aircraft’s existing hard points couldn’t support the array of missiles demonstrated in the graphic, meaning modifications would have to be made to the aircraft just to permit this maximum firepower arrangement, and that doesn’t even begin to broach the subject of observability.
The F-35’s only has four internal air-to-air missile slots for a reason: carrying missiles externally can dramatically increase the aircraft’s radar signature, making the F-35 visible to enemy aircraft and eliminating its stealth advantage. That’s a big deal in an advanced aircraft that’s already slower, heavier, and more sluggish than its competitors.
There is, however, one possibility for this make-believe loadout Lockheed apparently intends to bring to fruition: a strategy that involves using some F-35s as “arsenal ships” for forward engaged fighters. The arsenal ship strategy would see a group of heavily armed “beast mode” F-35s hanging a few miles behind the stealthier F-35s conducting forward operations. Those stealthier F-35s could then call on the arsenal ships in the rear to engage enemy fighters using beyond-the-horizon missile platforms, saving the internal loadouts of the forward fighters for when they’re needed. Lockheed also points out that the “beast mode” configuration could be used over regions with no air-to-air threat present, such as ongoing combat operations in Afghanistan.
“In stealth mode, the F-35 can infiltrate enemy territory that other fighters can’t, carrying 5,700 pounds of internal ordnance. Once air dominance is established, the F-35 converts to beast mode, carrying up to 22,000 pounds of combined internal and external weapons, to return to the battle to finish the fight.” Lockheed wrote in their release.
Of course, such a transition in strategy and loadout capabilities will require an increase in funding to develop and implement. Lockheed has, unsurprisingly, not made any statements regarding where that funding will come from yet.
Images courtesy of Lockheed Martin