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F-35 — The elevated sensor

Opinion: US Air Force General (Ret’d) Gary North explains how the F-35s role as an elevated sensor will enhance the Royal Australian Air Forces intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. 

Opinion: US Air Force General (Ret’d) Gary North explains how the F-35s role as an elevated sensor will enhance the Royal Australian Air Forces intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. 

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) expects to achieve a full operational capability (FOC) with its fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II combat aircraft in late 2023. The FOC milestone will see three operational squadrons and one training squadron fully established and equipped, and all base, training, and sustainment facilities completed.

While the RAAF is building up its air combat force with the F-35A, it is also fielding an increasingly capable fleet of stand-off intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems. These systems will be vital in helping the Australian Defence Force (ADF) secure its vast borders by providing stand-off ISR support for ground, maritime, and air combat elements. The E-7A Wedgetail and P-8A Poseidon are already in service and proving to be world-class capabilities. These will be joined from 2024 by the MC-55A Peregrine SIGNT/ELINT aircraft, and the uncrewed MQ-4C Triton maritime ISR system.


As the RAAF also considers what crewed and uncrewed ISR platforms and systems it may require in the future, the unique ISR capabilities that the F-35 brings should not be overlooked. 

More than multi-role

In some of his works for the Air Power Development Centre, AIRCDRE (Ret’d) Chris Westwood, former Commander of the RAAF’s Surveillance and Response Group, said, “The F-35 will come into operational service as the most advanced, fully integrated, fully fused package of multi-spectral optical and RF sensors in aviation history.” He continued on to say that “Using an advanced high bandwidth stealthy datalink, each [F-35] shares its observed tracks with other F-35s, increasing the speed and accuracy with which the formation can characterise the threat environment across large volumes of the battlespace.” 

The F-35’s advanced sensor suite referred to here will greatly enhance the RAAF’s ISR capabilities by providing a critical and unique combination of advanced sensors, communications, and effectors packaged in a single survivable platform.

That survivability is a critical advantage that the F-35 brings over other ISR platforms. Aided by very low observable shaping and coatings, advanced communications, and enhanced situational awareness, the F-35 can employ its advanced sensors far inside the stand-off distances the RAAF’s other ISR aircraft will be forced to safely operate at. This “stand-in” capability provides timely and much higher fidelity sensor data, an ability to react faster to threats with kinetic or non-kinetic effects and builds a more comprehensive operating picture for the joint force.

As an example of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, the F-35’s data fusion “engine” brings all of the data collected by these sensors together and presents it to the pilot as a single common operation picture. When combined with the F-35’s advanced Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL), this fused data can be distributed through a trusted network to a wider “ecosystem” of ADF and allied ISR and combat aircraft, surface vessels, and into an Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD) network such as that being developed for the ADF’s Project AIR 6500. Rather than building a kill chain as with legacy systems, this will enable the ADF to build a more cohesive “kill web”.

Proving the kill web

The F-35’s ability to link this sensor data has been proven in several exercises and demonstrations over the past eight years. At Valiant Shield ‘22, an F-35A provided sensor data to a US Army patriot air defence battery; sensor data from an F-35A was linked into an air battle management node at Talisman Saber ‘21; and F-35A firing data was provided to Aegis Ashore and shipborne combat systems, with PAC-3 air defence system, and a HIMARS multiple launch rocket system in multiple demonstrations in the US in conjunction with the US Air Force and US Missile Defence Agency. 

All of these demonstrations have direct relevance to current and planned ADF capabilities, and all are further proof of the F-35’s advanced capabilities to sense, communicate, and effect near-peer adversaries. It’s closed-loop sensor fusion capabilities enable it to autonomously and instantaneously pinpoint targets, which it can then share with the joint force with speed, precision, and confidence.

The foundation of allied deterrence 

Working alongside Indo-Pacific and Western allies and partners is a critical part of the ADF’s strategy. The Indo-Pacific will eventually host more than 300 F-35s permanently, including the Australian fleet. This fully interoperable force is not only key to the continued deterrence of advanced threats, but reinforces Australia’s alliances by driving collaboration across industry, government, and the military.

As we look to the future, Lockheed Martin is committed to investing in upgrading capabilities to ensure the lethality and survivability of the F-35 remains uncontested. The F-35 fleet will continue to receive upgrades that will ensure it will maintain the most cutting-edge warfighting technologies needed to outpace rapidly advancing threats from near-peer adversaries. And Lockheed Martin Australia will continue to work with the Commonwealth to align, support, and deliver these capabilities to integrate with AIR 6500, Aegis, and other current and future programs.

With unmatched, fifth generation capabilities and full interoperability, the F-35 serves as the centrepiece of 21st century security for key allies in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world. 

Gen. Gary North (USAF, Ret’d) previously served as the Pacific Air Forces Commander and Commander of the US Central Command Air Forces before retiring in 2012. He is the vice president for customer requirements at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.

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