Defining the F-35 as a fifth-generation fighter is not a marketing gimmick. The impressive generation leap is real and proven. The operational capabilities of the F-35 are clearly and significantly superior to those of fourth-generation fighters. This aircraft is, in fact, revolutionary in the realm of aerial warfare, as the pilots flying it, in Israel and around the world, have been saying time and again.
The 'revolution' is reflected in the fact that this aircraft can operate stealthily in areas heavily defended by some of the most sophisticated air-defense systems currently available, with the attacking aircraft remaining completely undetected. Fourth-generation fighters will not survive aerial operations in these areas.
Additionally, the 'revolution' is reflected in the reduction of the size of the aerial force required in order to execute strike missions. Unlike the situation in the era of the fourth-generation fighters, a handful of F-35 fighters can operate autonomously, in a threatened environment, with no need for assistance by dedicated electronic warfare, early warning and air traffic control aircraft or aircraft assigned to spot targets on the ground. In this context, representatives of the Israeli Air Force reported that a single F-35 fighter can accomplish missions that previously required four aircraft to accomplish, thereby constituting a significant force multiplier.
The revolutionary advantage of the F-35 aircraft is reflected not just in the aspect of their autonomous operating capability, but also in their ability to cooperate with fourth-generation fighters and with naval and ground forces, through a secured, fast and unified network. When F-35 fighters lead a strike mission, they can enhance the effectiveness of previous-generation aircraft and improve their survivability by providing current data regarding threats and targets, while promoting the situational awareness of the strike force pilots. An F-35 fighter can deliver the devastating "first strike" to the required targets without being detected by any Radar system – as sophisticated as it may be.
To survive on the modern battlefield and succeed in the accomplishment of demanding missions, the new motto is "Information is Life." Optimal pilot situational awareness is critical. The F-35 provides the pilot flying it, as well as other pilots in the vicinity, with the best possible situational awareness, owing to a multispectral sensor array. This array consists of three primary systems, as outlined below.
One of the most important sensors on board the F-35 is its APG-81 Radar – a state-of-the-art phased-array, active electronic scanning system, capable of simultaneously tracking multiple targets at long ranges. With more than 1,000 transceivers on its fixed flat antenna, the system has a power capacity that far exceeds any other Radar fitted to any previous generation fighter – even the Radar system of the EA-6B Prowler, a US-made dedicated electronic warfare aircraft. In addition to detecting and tracking targets in the air and on the ground, the system can also disrupt and jam signals from hostile Radars.
Equally important is the Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) installed under the nose of the F-35 fighter. This is the world's first sensor that combines thermal imaging (FLIR) functions with Infra-Red Search & Track functions, all intended to provide the F-35 pilots with a precision target detection capability in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat encounters. The system enables the pilot to identify areas of interest, collect visual intelligence and accurately launch laser or GPS guided munitions while maintaining a stealthy flight profile.
The third highly important sensor system installed on board the F-35 is the AN/AAQ-37 Distributed Aperture System (DAS). This system consists of six electro-optical sensors distributed around the aircraft, which provide the pilot with 360-degree spatial situational awareness. These sensors generate alerts of threats like approaching aircraft or missiles and enable daytime and night vision, fire control and accurate tracking of other aircraft in the same formation. The images provided by these sensors are projected on the visor of the pilot's helmet, so he can 'see' whatever takes place behind or below him.
The revolutionary advantage of the F-35 fighter in enhancing the pilot's situational awareness is accomplished through sensor data fusion – producing the data from the extensive range of sensors on board the aircraft, adding the data coming in from external sources and providing the pilot with a clear picture of the information that is important to his mission. The picture the pilot will see on the widescreen display in the cockpit and on the visor of his helmet will provide him with complete situational awareness. When the pilot diverts his gaze, for example, to the floor of the cockpit, he will be able to view a live picture of whatever goes on under the aircraft on his helmet display. In previous generation aircraft, the pilot or the navigator (system operator) have to analyze and appraise, in their mind, the data received from various sources, then decide how to respond to the threats on their own.
When called upon to operate stealthily in heavily-defended areas, the F-35 is restricted to carrying missiles and bombs inside its internal bomb bays only. In this mode, it has a total carrying capacity of about 2.6 tons. This internal capacity will normally be sufficient for executing a high-precision strike mission involving multiple targets plus self-defense. However, in missions that do not require a stealth configuration, the F-35 can carry external loads and a massive amount of ordnance on six hardpoints under its wings. In this mode, it has a total carrying capacity of up to 8.2 tons – the same as that of the F-16 and only slightly less than that of the F-15.
In conclusion, as the former commandant of the IAF, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, told me not so long ago: "The F-35 is not just another aircraft – it changes the rules of the game!"
Brig. Gen. (IAF, res.) Joshua (Shiki) Shani, CEO of Lockheed Martin Israel, served as Commandant of the IAF airbase in Lod and as IAF attaché to the USA. He was the lead pilot of the C-130 Hercules formation in Operation Thunderbolt (the Entebbe rescue) in Uganda in 1976