The phrase “beast mode” wasn’t coined for the sake of the F-35. In fact, more often than not, you’ll find those two words adorning tweets about professional football players breaking tackles or in the caption under videos of street fights. So how did the phrase manage to find its way into so many headlines pertaining to Lockheed Martin’s flagship fifth-generation fighter? Well, for one thing, it makes for some great marketing.
In fact, the original “Beast Mode” touted by Lockheed Martin involved arming the platform with more ordnance than it actually has hard points to support. But before we start picking apart just how plausible their “Beast Mode” loadout really is, we should first clarify the premise behind it.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is widely believed to be the most advanced fighter platform on the planet, utilizing a combination of top-of-the-line stealth technology and an onboard networking suite that enables the aircraft to leverage targeting data from the most diverse list of assets ever seen in a fighter—providing it with a tactical advantage over more observable, less tech-heavy fourth-generation fighters. By relying on stealth, the F-35 is able to fight like a sniper, identifying targets and engaging them from behind the horizon, often well before the enemy target is even aware of its presence.
But that reliance on stealth comes with drawbacks: namely, the amount of firepower the F-35 can carry into the fight. Under most circumstances, the F-35 only carries four missiles or bombs into contested airspace, often divided into two air-to-air missiles and two guided bombs. Those weapons are carried internally, ensuring the fighter can maintain its stealth profile as it enters and leaves the combat environment. The problem is, a near-peer war would almost certainly require more ordnance than that, and as America moves toward replacing its aging fleet of fourth-generation fighters, the F-35 will need to be able to trade in its stealthy pajamas for a loadout that brings more punch to the party.
For those of us not wearing Tap Out shirts, this loadout is commonly referred to as the “third day of war” external weapons configuration (which, upon saying that out loud once, makes a sound argument for a shortened moniker like “Beast Mode”). The name is based on the idea that the first days of combat operations would undoubtedly require stealth to enter contested airspace and engage with anti-aircraft assets. Once those anti-air weapons systems and radar emplacements have been destroyed, F-35 crews are free to start strapping more weapons onto their aircraft. If there are no radar-based weapons left to worry about, low radar observability is no longer a pressing concern.
So just how much more ordnance can an F-35 carry while flying in “Beast Mode?” That’s not really a subject of debate, but one exists anyway thanks to Lockheed Martin themselves muddying these waters a bit. They unveiled their “Beast Mode” configuration by touting this graphic:
The F-35 can’t support 14 AIM-120 AMRAAMs and two additional AIM-9X sidewinder missiles as depicted above. Not only does the aircraft lack the hardware to mount all of that hate under its wings, there aren’t even plans in development to produce an F-35 that could. Nonetheless, the “Beast Mode” moniker lives on, in a reduced capacity, as the term journalists use to describe when you put as much hardware on an F-35 as it will actually allow. Further, instead of a 22,000 pound total ordnance payload, F-35s are only actually rated to carry around 18,000 pounds worth of weaponry.
So what exactly is the F-35’s “Beast Mode?” In reality, it’s a snappy name for converting the fifth-generation stealth fighter into a network-capable, super-cruising fourth-generation-like powerhouse. It may not be what Lockheed Martin has claimed it is, but it still offers a whole lot of destructive capability that would surely be brought to bear in a near-peer-level conflict.