Tag Archives: F-35A

Interesting Photos Show U.S. Air Force F-35A Stealth Jets Deployed To Japan About To Launch Without Radar Reflectors

Some recent photos of the Hill AFB F-35s deployed to Kadena Okinawa, seem to suggest the 5th Generation fighters have started operating in “stealth mode”.

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 on the right side of the F-35A (the remaining two are located in the same positions on the left side). Image credit: LM (hightlight by Author)

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.

The lack of reflector on the top left position of this F-35 is pretty evident in the following photographs:

A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, goes through pre-flight checks prior to taxiing Jan. 25, 2018, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. The F-35A is a 5th-generation stealth fighter developed to safely penetrate areas while avoiding radar detection. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Quay Drawdy)

 

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jacob Valdez, 34th Aircraft Maintenance unit crew chief, performs pre-flight checks prior to a training flight Jan. 25, 2018, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. The F-35A is a 5th-generation stealth fighter developed to safely penetrate areas while avoiding radar detection. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Quay Drawdy)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jacob Valdez, 34th Aircraft Maintenance unit crew chief, communicates with Maj. Matthew Olson, F-35A Lightning II pilot from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, before a training flight Jan. 25, 2018, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. The F-35A is deployed under U.S. Pacific Command’s theater security package program, which has been in operation since 2004. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Quay Drawdy)

For comparison, the following photo shows one of the 388FW F-35A jets on the ground at Kadena in November 2017 with the radar reflector.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Patrick Charles, 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit crew chief, goes through pre-flight procedures Nov. 16, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Rotational forces are integral to increasing our military combat capabilities, which are essential to U.S. power projection and security obligations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Greg Erwin)

Obviously the lack of radar reflectors is not a big deal: during their deployment to RAF Lakenheath last year, F-35As of the 388th FW have flown without reflectors some local sorties with the 48th FW F-15E Strike Eagles (for example on Apr. 26, 2017). However, photographs of deployed F-35s without Luneburg Lenses are pretty rare and, for this reason, interesting and newsworthy.

 

 

Marine Corps, Air Force F-35 Jets Take Part In Red Flag Exercise Together For The First Time

Red Flag 17-3 underway at Nellis Air Force Base features both U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Air Force F-35s, for the first time together.

Red Flag is simply one of the largest and more realistic exercises in world, designed to simulate the first 10 days of a modern conflict.

Hundred of combat aircraft along with pilots, ground forces, intelligence analysts, cyber and space operators take regularly part in RF exercises at Nellis AFB, just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, to validate tactics and weapon systems employment within the context of the Nevada Test and Training Range.

As already explained the RF scenario continuously changes in order to adapt to the real world threats: the old “fixed” battlefields, where the location of the enemy was known and remained pretty much unchanged until the aircraft reached the target area, have evolved in a more dynamic and unknown battlespace that requires real-time data coordinators able to disseminate information on the threats and targets gathered from a variety of assets and sensors. In such new “networked” scenarios, stealth technology (capability to survive and operate effectively where others cannot) combined with 5th Generation features (sensor fusing), are extremely important to achieve the “Information Superiority” required to geo-locate the threats and target them effectively.

That’s why the presence of 5th Gen. aircraft teaming with and “orchestrating” 4th Gen. combat planes (lacking the Low Observability feature but able to carry more ordnance) will become the leit motiv of the future Red Flags.

For instance, Red Flag 17-3, underway at Nellis from Jul. 10 to 28, sees two F-35 Lightning II squadrons (and as many JSF variants) participating in the drills together for the very first time: the Marine Corps’ F-35B STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) aircraft from VMFA-211 based at MCAS Yuma and the Air Force’s F-35A CTOL (Conventional Take Off and Landing) from 33rd Wing from Eglin AFB, Fla. Furthermore, during RF 17-3, the two different variants of the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter) operate alongside the F-22 Raptors from Tyndall AFB, also taking part in the exercise.

The cooperation of the three radar-evading aircraft, including the controversial F-35s, is going to be particularly interesting.

According to the USMC, VMFA-211 will conduct defensive counter air (DCA); offensive counter air (OCA); suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD); destruction of enemy air defense; dynamic taskings, which involve finding a time-sensitive target or series of targets and eliminating them; electronic warfare (EW); preplanned strikes; and combat search and rescue (CSAR).

Whereas U.S. Air Force F-35s (from a different unit) have already taken part in RF, the missions they flew during RF 17-1, at least based on reports and official statements, focused on OCA and air interdiction in a highly contested/denied aerial environment: Air Force F-35As penetrated denied airspace and directed standoff weapons from B-1B heavy bombers flying outside the denied airspace. During these missions, the F-35As with IOC (Initial Operational Capability – the FOC is expected next year with Block 3F) entered the denied airspace and engaged both aerial and ground targets, not only with weapons they carried but also with weapons launched from other platforms such as the B-1Bs as they loitered just outside the threat environment acting as “bomb trucks.” Moreover, during the RF 17-1 sorties, flying alongside the F-22 Raptors, the F-35s achieved the pretty famous kill ratio of “20-1.

Interestingly, even though it will probably not embed simulated shipborne or remote base operations (that are what the F-35Bs, in spite of the limited range and internal weapons capacity, was somehow designed to conduct) the Marine Corps will expand the role of the 5th Gen. aircraft in RF, covering also EW and CSAR support tasks.

“It’s … important to practice integrating assets from all across the [Armed Forces’] inventory because if we go to conflict, we don’t want that to be the first time we all integrate with each other,” said Maj. Paul Holst, VMFA-211’s executive officer, in a public release.

“This is the first time we [VMFA-211] have deployed on this scale … we brought 10 F-35s here with all of our maintenance equipment, all of our support equipment and personnel,” said Holst. “For the pilots, the opportunity to participate in these exercises prepares us for combat … and the opportunity to integrate and plan with the rest of the force is something you just don’t get anywhere else.”

“A lot of times at home station, we’re basically working just with each other or we’re doing things that are [smaller in] scale and only focusing on our specific mission sets that we do,” said Maj. Chris Brandt, a pilot and administration and logistics officer in charge with VMFA-211. “When we actually deploy, we’re most likely going to be part of a joint force so coming here you get that experience. It’s not until you come to exercises like these that you get to train across services and [train] with platforms that you typically would not work with at your home station.”

According to Holst, Red Flag allows each service and subordinate unit to understand the capabilities of other services, units and their equipment.

“For example, the E/A-18G exists in the Navy and the Air Force doesn’t really have a comparable asset to that. There may be situations where the only F-35s in theater are Marine Corps F-35s … and you have to integrate the F-35s into the entire package,” said Holst. “It’s always going to be necessary to bring everyone’s assets together and practicing that is really important.”

The F-35s of both variants should play a dual role: “combat battlefield coordinators,” collecting, managing and distributing intelligence data while also acting as “kinetic attack platforms,” able to drop their ordnance on the targets and pass targeting data to older 4th Gen. aircraft via Link-16, if needed. More or less what done by the USMC F-35B in exercises against high-end threats carried out last year with some jets configured as “bomb trucks” and others carrying only internal weapons.

As a side note it’s worth mentioning that the integration of the F-35A and B variants is something another partner nation is going to explore in the future. In fact, Italy will have both A and B variants, with the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) ones serving both the Air Force (that has already taken on charge its first 7 F-35As with the eight example that has recently performed its maiden flight at Cameri FACO) and the Italian Navy, that will use them on the Cavour aircraft carrier. One day we will analyse (again) whether the F-35B was really needed by the ItAF, but this is going to be another story.

 

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U.S. F-35 Update: F-35A to Red Flag, Navy F-35Cs Experience Problems, Marine F-35B Leads

Large Number of Air Force F-35As to Red Flag 17-1, Navy Works Through F-35C Launch Problem, Marines Continue to Lead in F-35B Integration.

January of 2017 has been a busy month for the ongoing integration of new Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters into U.S. operational deployment with the U.S. Air Force and testing with the U.S. Navy.

Most recently the U.S. Air Force has deployed flight and maintenance crews of the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings from Hill AFB to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, on January 20, 2017 for Red Flag 17-1. The units are reportedly contributing an unprecedented total of thirteen F-35As to the exercise according to spotters on the ground outside Nellis.

The F-35As join twelve U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors from the 149th Fighter Squadron of the Virginia Air National Guard 192nd Fighter Wing flying to Nevada from Joint Base Langley–Eustis, Virginia. This marks a significant exercise to utilize the interoperability of the F-35A with the F-22 as a unified force.

P-51, F-35 and F-22 Heritage Flight

Col. David Lyons, 388th FW commander told official Air Force media, “Our Airmen are excited to bring the F-35 to a full-spectrum combat exercise. The Red Flag battle space is going to be a great place to leverage our stealth and interoperability. It’s a lethal platform and I’m confident we will prove to be an invaluable asset to the commander.”

The Red Flag deployment for Air Force F-35As is significant since it marks a major milestone in one of the aircraft’s primary roles, flying as an interoperable sensor and intelligence gathering platform in combination with other tactical aircraft. Maj. Jeffrey Falanga, director of operations for the 414th Combat Training Squadron that hosts Red Flag told media, “Red Flag is important because of what it provides,” Major Falanga went on to say, “(Red Flag) provides our training audience with a realistic environment enabling them to practice in all domains–air, ground, space, and cyber–and also to be able to practice interoperability with not only U.S., but joint and coalition forces. Which is important since we’ll operate with these forces in our next engagement.”

Last year the U.S. Marines deployed six F-35B Lightning II’s from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 to Red Flag 16-3 in July-August 2016. The Marine F-35Bs have since been deployed to the western Pacific. This suggests the Marines have had the highest degree of success in integrating F-35s into an operational setting even though they fly the most complex version of the F-35, the “B” version with the STOVL  (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) capability designed to operate from small assault carrier ships.

The year had a bumpy start, literally, for U.S. Navy F-35C tests and evaluation. In a Jan. 11, 2017 news story the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) for the U.S. Navy’s F-35C program was quoted as reporting that, “Excessive vertical oscillations during catapult launches make the F-35C operationally unsuitable for carrier operations, according to fleet pilots.”

The problem that prompted the report is predominantly the result of the nose landing gear suspension settings and/or design according to AviationWeek.com. The nose landing gear is not adequately damping the strong vertical movement that results when the nose gear is released from the catapult launch apparatus at the end of the flight deck. The vertical oscillations were severe enough that pilots could not read flight-critical data on their instrument displays according the report. The oscillations caused most pilots to lock their seat harness during launch, which made emergency controls difficult for some pilots to reach. The test pilots deemed this situation “unacceptable and unsafe,” according the report portions published by AviationWeek.com.

During carrier launches the nosewheel suspension is compressed both by the tension of the catapult towbar and to a smaller degree by thrust applied when the pilot advances the throttle to take-off power settings. The front of the aircraft “squats” or assumes a slightly nose-downward angle of attack compared to when it is not attached to the catapult towbar for launch.

Once the catapult is fired and the hold-back behind the nose landing gear is released the aircraft begins its trip down the flight deck propelled by jet thrust from the engines and either by hydraulic, or on newer aircraft carriers, electromagnetic force through the catapult. At the end of the flight deck on the bow of the ship where the flight deck ends the towbar releases the nose landing gear and the nose of the aircraft rapidly rises, increasing angle of attack to facilitate optimal lift at the speed the aircraft is traveling when it reaches the edge of the deck. The amount of launch force used by the catapult is different for each launch depending on the gross take-off weight of the aircraft being launched. It varies with type, fuel load and payload.

The problems were reported during the latest round of sea trials on board the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73). These latest reports conflict with earlier reports from sea trials onboard USS George Washington in August of 2015 when Cmdr. Ted “Dutch” Dyckman, a pilot with Strike Fighter Squadron 101, the “Grim Reapers”, told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, “It’s just easy, It’s really easy to fly.”

Twelve U.S. Navy pilots operated the F-35C during earlier aircraft trials in 2016 aboard the George Washington from Strike Fighter Squadron 101, the “Grim Reapers”. The pilots were completing carrier qualifications as a continuing phase of the F-35C’s testing prior to operational deployment.

The Navy’s Patuxent River-based Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 is the unit that reported the take-off anomalies. Flight operations for the later phase of tests by Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23), included taking off and landing with externally mounted simulated weapons and asymmetrical loading. These additional loads may be a factor in the outcome of the testing and the subsequent report.

While this is a negative report about U.S. Navy F-35C operations, the final version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to enter U.S. service (The U.S. Marine F-35B and Air Force F-35A are already operational), it is a relatively minor potential defect in the program that will likely be corrected as a result of this finding.

Finally, in F-35 airshow news we learned in a phone conversation with Mark Thibeault, civilian contractor speaking about the U.S. Air Force Heritage Flight Team, that the team’s schedule will include “fourteen dates” in 2017. The final scheduling for the F-35 Heritage Flight Team will be completed within 2-3 weeks according the Thibeault.

Author with Major Will Andreotta

Major Will Andreotta returns as the F-35A Heritage Flight pilot for 2017.

Image credit: Tom Demerly

 

 

Israeli Government Approves Purchase of 17 more F-35s bringing the total to 50 stealth jets

Despite criticism, Israel decided to exercise the option for another 17 aircraft. And there might also be some F-35Bs at the horizon to enable the Israeli Air Force to continue operating from dispersed locations in case of attack.

On Nov. 27, the Israeli Ministerial Committee for National Security, headed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decided to purchase another 17 F-35A Conventional Take Off and Landing (CTOL) aircraft, bringing the total to 50 Lightning II jets.

The first two examples of the controversial, expensive, advanced 5th Generation aircraft, designated “Adir” (“Mighty One”) by the Israeli, are expected to be delivered to the Israeli Air Force (IAF), at Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel, in about three weeks.

The stealth aircraft, that the Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman defined “the most advanced in the world and the best for safeguarding Israel’s aerial superiority,” was contracted through the U.S. government’s Foreign Military Sales program; the first 33 examples were purchased in two batches: the first one worth 2.75 billion USD and the second for 2.82 billion USD, including infrastructure, parts, and training simulators.

The Israeli F-35s will have some components contributed by Israeli companies, including Israel Aerospace Industries that will produce the F-35’s outer wings, Elbit Systems-Cyclone, that will provide center fuselage composite components as well as Elbit Systems Ltd. that will provide Gen. III helmet-mounted display systems to be worn by all Lightning II pilots.

Although the extent of “domestic” modifications is still unknown, the IAF F-35As will be somehow different from the “standard” F-35s, as they will embed national EW (Electronic Warfare) pods, weaponry, C4 systems etc. This is the reason why Israeli F-35s are sometimes dubbed F-35I (for Israel), as if they were a different variant from the three baseline versions (A, B and C).

For sure, the new sales represents a good promotion for Lockheed Martin, considered the fame of the Israeli Air Force, known to be one of the most advanced and very well equipped: if the F-35s were deemed to be able to meet all the requirements of a service with a really strong reputation, that has been at war for decades and has employed its combat planes to perform some really complex operations (like the air strikes on the Iraqi nuclear reactor and the Syrian nuclear facility in 2007), then they should be good for most of the world air forces (some of those continue to invest in the program.)

Still, there are many, even at the Pentagon, who firmly believe that the F-35 is not suitable for combat for years to come.

By the way, the news comes few days after Canada announced the plan to use F/A-18E/F Super Hornet multi-role fighters as “gap fillers” until Ottawa decides on a replacement for its fleet of legacy Hornet aircraft. In fact, after investing in the program for several decades, the new Trudeau Government canceled Canada’s planned purchase of the F-35 (considered too expensive) and announced a new, forthcoming open competition for a permanent CF-18 replacement.

Anyway, it seems that the IAF might end up operating F-35Bs as well.

As we have already reported last year, talks between Israel and U.S. about a possible IAF acquisition of the F-35B, the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) version of the Joint Strike Fighter, have started in 2015, according to some Israeli media outlets.

F-35Bs would allow the aircraft to take off and land from austere landing strips in should Iran be able to knock out IAF airbases with precision weapons.

Israel is a small country and its main airfields could be easily threatened by long-range weapons in the hands of state actors or handed over to militant movements like Hamas and Hezbollah: IAF’s only chance to continue operating in case of attack would be dispersing aircraft to remote locations, an option that would be viable only thanks to the unique F-35B STOVL capabilities.

adir-first-flight

 Image credit: Lockheed Martin

 

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First Italian pilot qualified as F-35A Instructor Pilot at Luke Air Force Base

Italian Air Force fighter jock becomes fully-qualified F-35A IP at Luke AFB.

An ItAF combat pilot has recently become the first Italian F-35A IP (Instructor Pilot) with the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke AFB, Arizona.

The Italian IP has got the qualification to train Italian and partner nations pilots on the Joint Strike Fighter through a 6-month syllabus made of two distinct classes respectively called “Transition” and “Intructor Pilot Upgrade” (IPUG).

During Transition the pilots train in various forms of flight: air-to-air combat, air-to-ground missions including SEAD/DEAD tasks (Suppression / Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses). At the end of this stage, the student IPs have gained skills to fly these missions in all-weather conditions.

During the subsequent IPUG class, the students are taught how to teach follow-on pilots to fly and fight in the F-35A. The IPUG course ends with a check ride required to achieve the IP qualification.

The syllabus has become more focused on full combat training last Spring, as the U.S. Air Force prepared to declare the F-35A Lightning II ready for war by the U.S. Air Force with the 34th Fighter Squadron based at Hill AFB in Utah (that eventually achieved the Initial Operational Capability on Aug. 2).

[For a detailed analysis of the IOC milestone, please read our report published here.]

The newly qualified Italian IP will serve in the multinational pilot training center at Luke AFB in Arizona, the world’s premier conventional F-35 training base where, under a pooling arrangement, USA, Australia, Norway and Italy, share IPs and aircraft to train new pilots and instructors within the same standardized framework.

Two Italian F-35As are already part of the “shared pool” at the airbase near Phoenix: the first one, dubbed AL-1 and serialled MM7332, the ItAF’s first F-35, the first JSF built outside the U.S., arrived in the U.S. at the end of the type’s first ever transatlantic flight on Feb. 5, 2016.F-35 ItAF IP 2Image credit: ItAF