F-35 is turning into a “flying sensor” for UAV ground targeting

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US developers have embarked on fresh testing trials of their extraordinary F-35 Lightning II alongside unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs or UCAVs]. These evaluations are part of the Project Convergence Capstone 4 [PC-C4] agenda managed by the US Army. 

Photo by Pfc. Syrr Parker

The principal objective of these tests is to examine the F-35’s sensors in an alternate use case – AWAC. In other words, the sensors on this stealth fighter craft will relay information regarding a ground target’s location to a drone. Consequently, the ground target becomes the drone’s objective, directed by the data from the F-35. This unique approach allows the F-35 to stay out of combat range, preserving its valuable services, and instead employing the cost-effective yet efficient Kamikaze drone. 

This innovative examination was executed in collaboration with the US Marine Corps, who provided their F-35 as the sensor source. The US Navy also plays a pivotal role in this venture, functioning as the “battle control node”. 

Revolutionizing the F-35

Successful execution of the PC-C4 could revolutionize future military endeavors of both the US and UK armed forces. Both nations currently employ E-3 Sentries AWAC, which perform capably in tactical situations. However, the main drawback of the E-3 Sentries is their vulnerability within combat ranges. 

Therefore, the robust 500-mile radio range of the F-35 could effectively replace the E-3 Sentries. The numbers game also significantly impacts this dramatic shift. One can only send a limited number of E-3s, perhaps six or seven at a time on a single mission. In contrast, a fleet of 20 to 30 F-35s can provide far superior coverage within the combat range. 

Photo credit: ViperWing

Moreover, the F-35 possesses the added advantage of functioning as an AWACS in combat zones, even after primary AWACS has been pulled out. The F-35 outlasts AWACS craft, especially against adversaries like the Chinese J-20 and Russian MIG-31. Furthermore, the F-35 has been sold to various European countries by the US over the past year, enabling global surveillance 24/7 if they are used explicitly as AWACS. 

The US Navy as a command center

In this context, the contribution of the US Navy during F-35 AWACS missions is vital. The F-35 processes far more data than any other contemporary tactical fast jet. However, interpreting this data requires extensive AI and human involvement, only feasible within a flying or ground command center. The US Navy fulfills this role as the ground command post. 

“The F-35’s primary application is locating various vehicles and ships,” states U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Matteo Occipinti, who is experienced in piloting the F-35. “There’s a significant technological advancement in sensors, data links, and the seamless integration between them.” 

Photo by James Deboer

The teamwork and global scope of these trials are crucial to maximizing sensors, battle control nodes, and weaponry, thereby disrupting enemy target tracking and eliminating single-point failures. 

The information is a commodity

“Information becomes a commodity in battle due to unforeseen circumstances in these exercises,” expresses Morgan Hutts, director of operations for the 134th Air Control Squadron. “It’s about training our Airmen, Soldiers, and Marines, irrespective of rank, to actively seek the information they need at their level. This will help them understand the commander’s intent and boost their lethality.” 

The culmination of these experiments will result in enhanced joint and allied cooperation. This unity will ensure that the Army, as a cog in the joint and multinational wheel of military might, can seamlessly merge effects across all domains to lay the foundation for the Army of 2030.


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