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.

The Pentagon has a plan to use fighter jets to shoot down ICBMs: Here's how it could work

According to the Missile Defense Review released by the Pentagon late last week, the F-35 “has a capable sensor system that can detect the infrared signature of a boosting missile and its computers can identify the threatening missile’s location. It can track and destroy adversary cruise missiles today, and, in the future, can be equipped with a new or modified interceptor capable of shooting down adversary ballistic missiles in their boost phase and could be surged rapidly to hot spots to strengthen U.S. active defense capabilities and attack operations.”

So America‘s most advanced fighter already seems capable of managing this feat in the digital realm, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to this idea being a practical application for the jet.

So what are the cons?

Intercontinental ballistic missiles may look slow off the starting line when you’re watching old launch footage, but make no mistake–these are rockets that are not all that dissimilar from those that carry astronauts into space. They tend to move at speeds measured in miles per second once they lift off. That’s a far cry from being able to engage enemy aircraft or surface vehicles from a distance, which are far slower moving targets that are often moving along a predictable horizontal axis. ICBMs destined for far-off targets move faster and behave differently, forcing even Griffin to concede that a new weapon would likely need to be fielded to make this strategy work–and new weapons with new capabilities cost a whole lot of money.

The Pentagon has a plan to use fighter jets to shoot down ICBMs: Here's how it could work
According to Griffin, the AIM-120 AMRAAM carried by the F-35 likely wouldn’t be up to the job. (USAF)

Further, both F-35s would have to already be airborne and in the vicinity of the launch when it occurred, so U.S. defense assets in the region would need to receive enough advanced warning to get the fighters in the air and deep enough into enemy airspace to execute the intercept. If the launch is then delayed, American fighters would have to loiter in the launch zone over enemy territory to engage the missile once it was fired.

So the interceptor the F-35 might utilize probably doesn’t exist yet, and in order for this strategy to work, the fighters would need to reach the launch area safely before the laundry list of ifs associated with the actual intercept itself could even come into play.

So is it really feasible?

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Maybe. In some regions of the world, like the aforementioned North Korea, it’s likely that F-35s could penetrate enemy airspace without facing much in the way of anti-aircraft fire thanks to its stealthy design. It’s highly likely that North Korea would launch fighters to intercept, which may be little threat to America’s fifth-generation fighters under normal circumstances, but with limited weapons capacity thanks to internal weapon bays full of interceptors, the F-35s would be limited in their ability to respond. Some American jets would have to be equipped to provide security, while others would be after the missile.

The Pentagon has a plan to use fighter jets to shoot down ICBMs: Here's how it could work
While the F-35 can carry external munitions, it would compromise its stealth profile. (WikiMedia Commons)

The most important facet of this strategy is recognizing that it would not be intended as a primary means of missile defense. American THAAD launchers, Aegis-equipped Naval assets, and in the event of an attack on American soil, the U.S. Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (despite all its flaws) would all still be active and working to engage the launched missile as well. The F-35 intercept strategy would likely be seen as another potential anti-missile tool in a growing missile defense tool box.

Further, even without purpose-built interceptors on board the F-35, placing a few of these jets in the vicinity of the launch could provide ground-based missile interceptors (likely rocket-propelled ones capable of higher speeds) with the targeting data they need to reliably take out a launching ICBM. The F-35 has already proven its ability to relay target information to other platforms to engage, so this would simply be an addition to that capability.

In short, this program wouldn’t be a sure thing, but it could be a useful addition to the American missile defense initiative–provided it could be done without breaking the bank. The high cost of simply maintaining the F-35 has already prompted the Air Force to warn that it may need to scale back its order of the fifth-generation fighter by almost half just to afford to fly the birds it’d have, though Lockheed Martin and the Air Force have reportedly been working to reduce maintenance costs across the board until they’re more sustainable.

For now, at least, this concept still seems pretty jam-packed with “ifs,” but, in theory, it’s at least possible.