Lockheed Martin Corp. wants to make the F-35 stealth fighter jet even deadlier than it is today and has designs on how to do it. But many proposed changes are classified, so it’s hard to know what they are.
The F-35 fighter is manufactured and sold as the most advanced tactical aircraft. Its low-observable (“stealth”) qualities result in a radar signature comparable to that of a steel golf ball, and its sensor fusion gives the pilot unprecedented awareness.
The F-35 is so versatile that it can conduct missions ranging from air-to-air battles to precision bombings to radar jamming to intelligence gathering, and 16 nations have already purchased it—and more will follow.
The F-35 must maintain its fighting edge over potential adversaries through 2070, no matter how imaginative its original configuration was, according to Loren Thompson, Chief Operating Officer of the non-profit Lexington Institute and Chief Executive Officer of Source Associates.
Periodic tech upgrades of the fighter’s software will be required, whether the technology is imaginative or not. Upgrades are necessary to perform new missions and utilize existing technology better.
The fighter’s creation two decades ago was the Joint Program Office’s most ambitious upgrade round to date, Block 4. Because the enhancements are classified, they are often alluded to in government reports and technical literature.
The Australian military will operate an F-35 by 2019, just as the US Armed Forces do.
The electronic hardware and software modifications in Block 4 will be applied to over 75 improvements on the fighter, which is used by the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps in different forms.
However, the fighter’s central processor and memory unit must be upgraded before these modifications can be enacted. This upgrade, TR-3, accomplishes this. The previous computing system, TR-2, is inadequate to support the functionality enhancements of Block 4.
Block 4 is an important step toward future improvements in IT, and TR-3 is described as the “IT backbone.”
All new aircraft production includes the TR-3 device, which will be retrofitted onto existing aircraft going back to Lot 10. It will require about 14 days of downtime and will be done by Lockheed field teams as part of scheduled maintenance.
Using an open-system architecture, the F-35’s processing power and computer memory will be greatly enhanced in addition to other technology upgrades. Because users will not become dependent on specific vendors for system enhancements, this approach minimizes dependence.
However, the real challenge begins once TR-3 is finished because more is needed to maintain pace with what China or Russia might be doing today in terms of onboard hardware and software. The F-35 must be enhanced to surpass the capabilities those countries might be employed in a decade or two.
According to TR-3, Block 4 improvements enable a wide range of weapons to be carried, as well as increased sensor sensitivity and range. In addition to 17 kinetic weapons such as missiles, the TR-3 upgrade program includes non-kinetic weapons “that use clever software and waveforms to jam or” bewilder enemy warfighting systems.
Leveled Up ‘Kill Webs’
The phrase “kill webs” refers to interconnected networks that link up with other military systems to enhance networking capability. It describes a wide range of interconnected warfighting weaved together with the capabilities of numerous operators, some of whom are not in the air.
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The military prefers not to reveal much about kill webs. Still, at the very least, there must be a fusion of sensor inputs from different sources and long-range weapons that take advantage of the resulting tactical awareness. Moreover, continuous, secure, and high-capacity connectivity across the battlefield is necessary because the process must occur in seconds.
In the Block 4 budget lines, the fighter is being upgraded with panoramic cockpit displays, among other things. This is part of a larger networked war military strategy that transcends any platform.
“The fighter becomes a node in a broader warfighting architecture,” as noted in the report.
The Joint Program Office has not yet decided how the F-35′s propulsion system will be improved to meet future performance demands. The fourth block will require more power, cooling, and thermal management than the fighter’s baseline configurations. As a result, an improved F135 engine or a new one might be used.
The budgetary aspects of Block 4 aren’t as easy to grasp as with any complex military project. But, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, the cost of upgrading the F-35 fleet has risen to an estimated $15 billion over a dozen years.
The GAO report, however, reveals that the cost rises are mainly due to including early expenses incurred by the effort in previous estimates and by having 25 more upgrades.
“Those of us without clearances may never know what some of the added capabilities are, because they are grounded in classified assessments of overseas military developments and the appearance of new missions that were not foreseen at the F-35’s inception,” Thompson wrote.
Block 4 is certainly essential if the F-35 is to remain a cutting-edge weapon in future wars. That, no doubt, is something that Congress and the many nations that plan to operate the plane for decades to come are well aware of.
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