Pentagon officials are mulling over a new initiative that would involve arming F-35 Joint Strike Fighters with ballistic missile interceptors that would be fired like a traditional air-to-air weapon at launching intercontinental ballistic missiles. Over the next six months, the Pentagon intends to determine whether such a strategy is feasible–both technically and financially–but at least one senior official already seems convinced.

“For certain regional geographies–North Korea comes to mind–we actually think it’s entirely possible and cost-effective to deploy what I will loosely call air-to-air interceptors, although possibly of new design, on advanced aircraft [and] using the aircraft as either sensor or weapons platforms to affect a missile intercept,” explained Mike Griffin, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for research and engineering.

“We will, as the report implies, be studying that again, but I’ve seen recently any number of assessments, several assessments, which indicate that this is something we should be looking at.”

The concept

The basic premise of the idea is to leverage the F-35’s low observability and advanced sensor suite to locate and engage launching ICBMs during their boost phase, in which the ballistic missile’s rockets are firing to bring the missile to its maximum speed. The boost phase tends to begin only three or four minutes after launch, and often ends a few miles above the Earth’s surface.

The Pentagon has a plan to use fighter jets to shoot down ICBMs: Here's how it could work
Boost phase of a USAF Minuteman III ICBM (USAF)

In theory, America’s intelligence-gathering apparatus would offer some early warning of an impending launch–something that is more feasible for liquid-fueled missiles which require a fairly lengthy fueling process prior to lift off. F-35s positioned in the region as a part of a broader missile defense strategy would be scrambled to close with the launch, where it would require at least two F-35s in the area to accurately triangulate the location and rate of ascent for the ICBM as it took off. If the fighters could close with the missile within the boost-phase window, they could feasibly fire purpose-built interceptors to take the missile down.

What are the pros?

The F-35’s advanced sensor suite and on-board computers are already plenty capable of spotting a large ballistic missile launch, and with two in the air, the fighters may not have much trouble getting accurate targeting data.