US Air Force air defence suppression capabilities are being enhanced via the F-35.
The US Air Force is on course to receive a new Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) asset in the form of upgraded Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning-II combat aircraft. The official Air Force Magazine reported on 2 June that a contract worth $26.7 million had been awarded to the firm for structural enhancements to adapt the jet for the SEAD mission. Design work on SEAD structural modifications for the aircraft are earmarked for completion by August 2022. The modifications are to ensure that the F-35A/B/C can house the necessary sensors and weapons to perform SEAD.
The USAF has not taken delivery of a new SEAD aircraft since 1994 when it began to receive General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16CJ Viper Weasel. The USAF is thought to possess eight squadrons of these F-16C/Js, potentially totalling up to 100 aircraft.
The two crucial components used by the F-16CJ are its Raytheon AN/ASQ-213(V) High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) targeting system, better known as the HTS, and its AGM-88 HARM series air-to-surface missiles from the same company.
The report continued that these modifications would be backfitted to aircraft produced via the Lot-14 and Lot-15 production runs. Lot-14 sees the production of 169 aircraft for US and foreign customers. Reports in February 2019 stated that Lot-15 could also include up to 169 aircraft.
The USAF has not revealed how the F-35A will detect and locate hostile radars. One possibility is that the necessary algorithms to detect, locate and extract the parameters of potentially hostile radars could be added to the F-35’s BAE Systems’ AN/ASQ-239 electronic warfare system. More details on the latter can be found here. The AN/ASQ-239 is believed to cover a waveband of 500MHz to 40GHz. In theory, this allows the system to detect and analyse emissions from hostile radars. Whether extra hardware in the form of additional antennas to aid the aircraft’s precise location of hostile radars will be needed has not been revealed.
The AN/ASQ-213(V) is thought to cover a waveband of 500MHz to 20GHz. While aircraft can still deploy AGM-88 missiles without the HTS, the AN/ASQ-213(V) gives highly precise target coordinates derived from the radar’s transmissions. Adapting the F-35A for SEAD will place a premium on ensuring that at least an equivalent, if not better, level of precision vis-à-vis the AN/ASQ-213(V) can be conferred on the aircraft.
As integral to the jet’s sensors will be the missiles it employs to engage hostile radars. The US Air Force is having an unspecified number of its AGM-88C missiles converted by Raytheon to the AGM-88F status. This adds a global positioning system and inertial navigation system to allow the missile to still target a radar based on its coordinates even if that radar’s transmissions are switched off in a bid to break the missile’s lock. The AGM-88F also includes a millimetric wave radar transmitting at frequencies above 30GHz. This aids battle damage assessment by gathering detailed imagery of the missile’s end game helping to ascertain the accuracy of the engagement.
Never Ending Story
The F-35A’s enhancement into the latest incarnation of the USAF’s Wild Weasel defence suppression aircraft is the latest chapter in a saga which commenced in 1965. The USAF was embroiled in the Vietnam War and facing serious losses from North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles. 55 years later this mission is coming to the fore once more with the latest technology, against the backdrop of an enhanced Russian air defence threat.