By Bijan Razzaghi
- The F-35A can conduct deep strike/interdiction missions in contested airspace.
- The F-35As sensors such as the EOTs can assist the F-22A in the Air Superiority role by visually identifying aircraft via infrared signature.
- F-35As can deploy standoff missiles from within enemy territory to extend the aircraft’s striking range.
During the mid-1990s the F-35 started out as the Joint Strike Fighter. This program was intended to produce a multi-role fighter designed to replace the F-16C/D in the US Air Force while operating alongside as many as 391 F-22A Raptor Air Superiority fighters. The F-35A would primarily be tasked for the strike, close air support, SEAD and other fighter roles assumed by the F-16. The F-35A has a large internal fuel capacity increasing the aircraft’s range and reducing drag, as most weapons would be carried internally in the stealth configurations. The F-35s stealth capabilities also improve the tactical fighter squadron mission profile by allowing the aircraft to operate in contested airspace without being detected by IADs (integrated air defense systems). This improvement in capabilities over the F-16 was considered part of the original mission profile set forth during development.
The cutting of the F-22As production run in 2009 reduced the aircraft fleet to 187. This development has left a significant gap in air superiority capabilities and the extension of the aging F-15Cs service life. Until the F-X is introduced into service in the 2030s a component of the F-35A fleet can be tasked to support the F-22 in the air superiority role during a major air campaign. The F-35 has the performance required to be tasked with the air superiority role and also adds sensors that can support this role that the F-22A does not have.
In a low drag stealth configuration, the F-35A can employ 4 AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles while as many as 12 can be carried in a non-stealth configuration. The F-35As maneuverability is competitive with most modern fighter aircraft in case of a visual range air-to-air engagement. The airframe is designed to sustain 9gs and the aircraft has a thrust to weight ratio higher than 1 with 50% fuel. Much like the F-22, the stealth configuration gives the F-35A the first shot first kill advantage over adversary aircraft.
The F-35As sensors offer capabilities that the F-22A does not have that can help provide an advantage in air-to-air engagements. This includes the EOTS (Electro-Optical Targeting System). The EOTs allows the F-35A pilot to visually identify aircraft in all weather conditions. The sensor can also function as an IRST or FLIR allowing threat aircraft to be detected via a heat signature. This can allow the F-35A to identify aircraft without using its own radar and reduce the probability of detection. This data can also be shared through Data Link to the F-22A, allowing for sound integration between the two platforms. The feeding of information between each aircraft provides better efficiency in an air combat scenario.
The F-15E is the Air Force’s primary interdiction aircraft. The initial batches of airframes were delivered between 1988 and 1996. An additional 10 aircraft were delivered in 2001. Funding for a fifth generation tactical bombing aircraft to replace the legacy F-15E in the 2020s was cut leaving the F-35A to fulfill the F-15Es role in A2/AD environments that the F-15E cannot effectively operate in. Much like with the F-16C/D mentioned earlier in this article the F-35A has been developed to fulfill all major ground attack operations. The shortcomings that arise with the F-35A in comparison to the F-15E is a shorter range and lack of a WSO (Weapons Systems Officer). These shortcomings are addressed by the F-35As ability to deliver long-range stand-off weapons from inside contested airspace and operating in conjunction with the F-22A and B-21 Raider which is to enter service by 2030.
To make up for the F-35As shorter range the aircraft can employ stand-off weapons such as the AGM-154 JSOW and AGM-158 JSSAM. While the F-15E can deploy these stand-off weapons from outside of contested airspace the F-35A can deploy them from deep inside contested airspace allowing for targets to be struck at longer distances. The AGM-154s range is said to be 70 nautical miles while the AGM-158 has a range of 200 nautical miles. These ranges can shift based on the aircraft’s speed and launch altitude. This capability is important because the use of standoff weapons extends the arms of the F-35A.
In the case that the objective is still to far away the gap in the range between the F-35A and F-15E can be made up with the B-21 Raider and to an extent F-22. The B-21 Raider is not yet in service, but it said to have a range comparable to the B-1B allowing it to conduct long-range tactical bombing missions. The F-22, on the other hand, has a slightly longer range than the F-35A but is limited to 2 1000 lb JDAMs.
The F-35A has specifications that can fill in the roles currently undertaken by the F-15C and F-15E both solo and in conjunction with the F-22 and B-21. The F-35A brings new capabilities to the battlefield in the form of sensors and situational awareness while also being able to operate in contested airspace. It is unlikely that the F-15E will be retired any time soon but the aircraft’s ability to operate in A2/AD environments will continue to be diminished. The F-15C, on the other hand, is entering into its last years of service due to airframe stress and the extra F-35As supporting the F-22A in a major air campaign can make a huge difference on the battlefield.
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