U.S. Air Force’s F-35A Jets With Radar Reflectors And External AIM-9X Missiles Carry Out First Airstrikes In Iraq

A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II prepares to connect with a KC-10 Extender during an aerial refueling mission above an undisclosed location, April 30, 2019. The mission marked the F-35A's first air interdiction during its inaugural deployment to the U.S. Air Forces Central Command's area of responsibility. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Drzazgowski)

Photos of the U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft involved in an airstrike at Wadi Ashai, Iraq, show a really interesting configuration.

Two U.S. Air Force F-35 belonging to the contingent from active duty 388th and reserve 419th Fighter Wings at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, deployed since Apr. 15, 2019, to Al Dhafra, UAE, have conducted the very first air strike in support of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve on April 30.

The strike, that marked the F-35A’s first combat employment, was conducted using JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) to strike “an entrenched Daesh tunnel network and weapons cache deep in the Hamrin Mountains, a location able to threaten friendly forces” in the Wadi Ashai area, in northern Iraq.

A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron out of Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, is refueled by a KC-10 Extender from the 908th Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron in an undisclosed location on April 26, 2019. The KC-10 and its crew performed aerial refueling for the first combat sortie of the F-35A, which is also carrying out its inaugural deployment to the U.S. Air Forces Central Command’s area of responsibility. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Drzazgowski)

“We have the ability to gather, fuse and pass so much information, that we make every friendly aircraft more survivable and lethal,” said Lt. Col. Yosef Morris, 4th Fighter Squadron commander and F-35A pilot in a public release. “That, combined with low-observable technology, allows us to really complement any combined force package and be ready to support AOR contingencies. […] The F-35A has sensors everywhere, it has advanced radar, and it is gathering and fusing all this information from the battlespace in real time,” said Morris. Now it has the ability to take that information and share it with other F-35s or even other fourth generation aircraft in the same package that can also see the integrated picture.”

A U.S. Air Force KC-10 Extender refuels an F-35A Lightning II above an undisclosed location, April 30, 2019. The KC-10 and its crew were tasked to support aerial refueling operations for the F-35A’s first air interdiction during its inaugural deployment to the U.S. Air Forces Central Command’s area of responsibility. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Drzazgowski)

Actually, the most interesting thing about the baptism of fire of the USAF Lightning is the configuration of the aircraft exposed by the photographs released by CENTCOM. Indeed, the aircraft carry their radar reflectors/RCS (Radar Cross Section) enhancers as well as external AIM-9X Sidewinder AAMs (Air-to-Air Missiles): in other words, the aircraft were not flying in “stealth mode”.

Here’s what radar reflectors, also known as RCS (Radar Cross Section) enhancers, are as explained in a previous article this Author posted here at The Aviationist last year:

Stealth aircraft, such as the F-22 Raptor or the F-35 Lightning II 5th generation jets are equipped with Luneburg (or Luneberg) lenses: radar reflectors used to make the LO (Low Observable) aircraft (consciously) visible to radars. These devices are installed on the aircraft on the ground are used whenever the aircraft don’t need to evade the radars: during ferry flights when the aircraft use also the transponder in a cooperative way with the ATC (Air Traffic Control) agencies; during training or operative missions that do not require stealthiness; or, more importantly, when the aircraft operate close to the enemy whose ground or flying radars, intelligence gathering sensors.

This is what we explained explaining how the Israeli the heavy presence of Russian radars and ELINT platforms in Syria cause some concern to the Israeli F-35 Adir recently declared IOC:

[…] the Russians are currently able to identify takeoffs from Israeli bases in real-time and might use collected data to “characterize” the F-35’s signature at specific wavelengths as reportedly done with the U.S. F-22s.

In fact, tactical fighter-sized stealth aircraft are built to defeat radar operating at specific frequencies; usually high-frequency bands as C, X, Ku and S band where the radar accuracy is higher (in fact, the higher the frequency, the better is the accuracy of the radar system).

However, once the frequency wavelength exceeds a certain threshold and causes a resonant effect, LO aircraft become increasingly detectable. For instance, ATC radars, that operate at lower-frequency bands are theoretically able to detect a tactical fighter-sized stealth plane whose shape features parts that can cause resonance. Radars that operate at bands below 300 MHz (lower UHF, VHF and HF radars), such as the so-called Over The Horizon (OTH) radars, are believed to be particularly dangerous for stealth planes: although they are not much accurate (because lower frequency implies very large antenna and lower angle accuracy and angle resolution) they can spot stealth planes and be used to guide fighters equipped with IRST towards the direction the LO planes might be.

F-35s deployed abroad usually feature their typical four radar reflectors: to exaggerate their real RCS (Radar Cross Section) and negate the enemy the ability to collect any detail about their LO “signature”. As happened during the short mission to Estonia and then Bulgaria, carried out by the USAF F-35As involved in the type’s first overseas training deployment to Europe or when, on Aug. 30, 2017, four U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II joined two USAF B-1B Lancers for the JSF’s first show of force against North Korea: the F-35Bs flew with the radar reflectors, a sign they didn’t want their actual radar signature to be exposed to any intelligence gathering sensor in the area

The two radar reflectors installed on the right side of the F-35. The other two are on the other side.

Since they almost always fly with the radar reflectors, photographs of the aircraft without the four notches (two on the upper side and two on the lower side of the fuselage) are particularly interesting: for instance, some shots taken on Jan. 24, 2018 and just released by the U.S. Air Force show F-35As deployed to Kadena AB, Japan, in October as a part of the U.S. Pacific Command’s Theater Security Package program, preparing to launch without their Luneberg reflectors.

Therefore, as explained last year F-35s use RCS enhancers to exaggerate their real RCS and negate the enemy the ability to collect any detail about their LO “signature”. In Syria and Iraq the risk is probably to “feed” the Russian S-400 air defense system, hence the use of devices used to become more visible to radars. Actually, the use of Luneberg lenses is also an option in case of war, when enemy air defense assets including sensors, air defense missile and gun systems and enemy aircraft are degraded by airstrikes and the environment becomes more permissive: in such a scenario the F-35 no longer relies on low-observable capabilities for survivability so it can shift to carrying large external loads, and go in a so-called “beast mode”.

Noteworthy, when on Sept. 27, 2018, U.S. Marine Corps F-35B jets with U.S. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211, the “Wake Island Avengers”, of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, carried out their first air strike in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province launching from U.S. Navy Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD-2) on station in the Persian Gulf, the aircraft also carried RCS enhancers and the externally mounted GAU-22 25mm gun pod in addition to the weapons in the internal bays.

Dealing with the radar reflectors, it’s pretty obvious that they were carried because there is no need to hide from any Taliban radars over Afghanistan (while in Iraq the situation is different and there’s probably the need to boost the radar signature to prevent disclosing sensitive radar details to the Russian sensors).

The use of radar reflectors and external loads still allows the aircraft to act as a so-called “electronic warfare enabled sensor-rich multi-role aircraft” that can hit target or escort strike packages into and out of the target area while gathering details about the enemy systems and spreading intelligence to other “networked” assets supporting the mission to improve the overall situational awareness.

As done by the F-22s since 2015, the F-35 can use its advanced onboard sensors to collect valuable details about the enemy Order of Battle, then share the “picture” with attack planes, command and control assets, as well as Airborne Early Warning aircraft, while escorting other manned or unmanned aircraft towards the targets. Indeed, the Lightning II is equipped with both the MADL [Multifunction Advanced Data Link] and Link 16, with the latter used only as a “backdoor” that allows the F-35 to communicate with legacy aircraft and perform the function of “enhancers” of previous generation platforms.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.