To the resounding anthem of Shoot to Thrill and surrounded by industry and military dignitaries from both at home and abroad, Lockheed Martin and the United States Air Force rolled the 100th F35 Lightning II off the production line at Lockheed’s Fort Worth factory Dec. 13. A fifth generation fighter, the Lighting II is expected to revolutionize the way the United States, and the world, conducts aerial combat, specifically through advanced stealth capabilities and breakthrough avionics.
Traditional combat dogma measures aerial combat in terms of kinematics. In other words, how fast and high can an aircraft go as well as how many Gs can it pull. The F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-18 Super Hornet and even the more recent Eurofighter Typhoon all operate according to these principles. But with a subsonic top speed of 700 knots and reaching a speed of 1.6 Mach, as well as the ability to sustain 9 Gs, the Lightning II more than holds its own in the dogfights that dominate traditional battle spaces.
“(It) flies like an F-15, fights like an F-18,” said Billie Flynn, a former Super Hornet pilot in the Canadian Air Force and now a Lightning II test pilot for Lockheed.
Although the Lightning II is not designed specifically for traditional dogfights, it has pitch authority comparable to the Super Hornet, which allows the aircraft pilot to get inside the turning radius of his opponent. In other words, it can bring its nose to bear on a target very quickly. Although Flynn was hesitant to reveal details, he did admit its capabilities were similar to the Raptor, which can swing its nose around while remaining virtually still. Of course, the Lightning II might be better, he hinted with a grin.
“That fight we thought we had in the legacy world, it’s Top Gun, isn’t it? Really never got any more sophisticated than that, with missiles…that shoot more than 90 degrees off your shoulder. That fight doesn’t happen anymore. That fight happens in a heartbeat – I look over and I kill you. It’s over; that’s it,” Flynn said.
However, the Lightning II’s strength does not lie in its prowess as a traditional fighter jet. The next generation’s stealth technology, that Lockheed and the Air Force say makes it virtually invisible to radar has the potential to change the face of aerial combat, making the hardware and tactics of fourth generation fighters obsolete.
“We change the direction of aerial combat,” Flynn said. “We’re not out there rattling sabers with everyone anymore. We’ve stopped that because no one sees you coming and going. You’re going to go out, do your task and leave; and they’ll never know you’re there. You’ll never need the 70 aircraft that I took into combat, so that we could stay alive, because we needed every specialized airplane in that huge package to keep us all alive.”
But the road has been a long one. The F-117 Nighthawk, the first true stealth aircraft that began operating in the early 1980s, was not actually a fighter at all. Designed for ground attacks, it could not reach supersonic speeds and had limited maneuverability. Not only did the Nighthawk suffer from limited kinematic abilities, but its stealth technology proved to be high maintenance. For example, when mechanics removed a panel for repair, they could not just bolt it back into place but had to plaster it in place.
“We’ve learned from (the) F-117, a small a cross section really needs to be all around, because you’re not just coming at someone head on – it’s all aspects. It’s not like you can control (how) everybody looks at you, precisely – it’s all aspects, 360 degrees spherically,” Flynn said.
The F-22 Raptor’s increased maneuverability and miniscule radar cross section represented a major step forward in stealth fighter technology. Entering service in the early 2000s, the Raptor remains one of the most dominant aircraft extant today. However, it was not without its own drawbacks including being difficult to repair, like its Nighthawk predecessor.
Many consider the Raptor to be a stronger fighter jet than the Lightning II, but its high production cost ($150 million) prompted the U.S. government to cease production in 2009 after purchasing only 183 aircraft. People like Flynn who are working on the Lightning II believe the aircraft’s increased stealth capabilities and advanced avionics will compensate for the Raptor’s kinematic advantage. Furthermore the Lightning II’s stealth panels are easier to repair than its predecessors’, and Lockheed even created a program to track nicks and dings and alert crews when maintenance might be affected.
Because something as small as an open bomb bay door is enough to make an aircraft show up on radar (an open bay door allowed Serbian SAMs to shoot down a Nighthawk during Operation Allied Force in 1999, compromising U.S. stealth technology to the Russians and Chinese), payload management is extremely important. An impressive amount of firepower needs to be concealed within the airplane’s body. Improvements in guidance systems make this possible by allowing pilots to drop a smaller warhead where it will do the most damage instead of having to carry a larger explosive that does not need to be placed so precisely.
One of the Lightning II’s most significant breakthroughs, according to its advocates, is the sensor fusion of its avionic systems which, they say, exponentially expands a pilot’s situational awareness beyond the OODA Loop (observe, orient, decide, act) fighter pilots currently employ to assess and answer threats. Instead of a pilot digesting multiple screens’ worth of data including radar, electronic warfare and electronic optical positioning, the computer analyzes and prioritizes information for the pilot, presenting it in a simple, easy to comprehend package and transmitting it to other friendly aircraft.
“In your own (fourth generation) cockpit, you’d have to prioritize – how dangerous is the electronic warfare threat; who’s shooting at me; what do I have to do about it; who do I see on my radar; who’s a good guy or bad guy,” Flynn said. “The human always had to be part of that – you’re in the video game in fourth generation jets trying to do your best – at some point you lose; at some point you’re overwhelmed… But we take the pilot out of the loop; the pilot was always the limiting factor.”
Even outside of a combat environment, the mental burden required by fourth generation fighters has proven deadly.
“On the first F-18, we killed a very talented Top Gun graduate who drilled himself into the tundra of Canada going more than 700 knots, because he had his head buried in the radar screen and never looked up,” Flynn said.
But sensor fusion requires a colossal amount of code. Compared to the Raptor’s programming that included 2.2 million lines of code and only had a 50 percent success rate coming off the line, the Lightning II is a behemoth, chewing through 8.8 million lines of code in order to run its systems.
Sensor fusion opens a vast array of missions to the Lightning II. Beyond going toe-to-toe with existing fighters, the Lightning II is capable of conducting solo, tactical and strategic bombing missions (one Lighting II can accomplish what it used to take a fleet of B-52s to do). Its ability to collect and process data surpasses even the AEW&Cs (Airborne Early Warning and Control, an airborne radar system that both detects threats from a great distance and exercises command and control over other aerial units). Additionally, a pilot flying a Lightning II conducts reconnaissance as he fights.
“We give the commander the ability to see so many more spectrums from horizon to horizon, information in detail that he never had,” Flynn said. “We need pilots to do entirely different missions up there, not just flying an airplane like they were in the fourth gen.
“There’s so much information presented on the big screens in front of them, that he needs to be focused on that, and he does not need to be focused on the manual task of flying an airplane… If he’s flying he’s not managing sensors.”
Flynn believes, when taken in perspective, the sheer power and versatility offered by the Lighting II will make current modes of air combat obsolete.
“You’re not going to fight this thing…trading missiles in attrition warfare,” Flynn said. “You’re going to fight just as you’ve learned from the F-22, without having to learn the hard lessons.
“When you talk about the lethality of the strategic surface to air missiles that exist out there today, they’ll kill non-stealthy airplanes at dramatic ranges. I cannot believe…a commander will allow non stealthy airplanes in the battle space, because he’s not going to put guys at risk. You’re going to sit at the back of the line, the back of the bus if you don’t have an airplane with this kind of capability.”
Alongside the standard Air Force model, Lockheed is developing an F-35B variant, for the Marine Corps, which can take off and land vertically in order to conduct front line operations the Marines need, as well as an F-35C, with a tail hook, destined for Navy aircraft carriers.
The versatility designed into the Lightning II not only makes it an ideal candidate for replacing all of the U.S. military’s current fourth generation fighters, but a powerful weapon to share with the United States’ allies. The Lightning II is as at home flying over the Arctic with the Norwegians or conducting blue water mission with the Australians.
“What I know is interoperability, coalition warfare, small air forces contributing one to the next to be part of a bigger force, so that’s what resonates to me – the little guys are coming together to become big guys, and this airplane is better in terms of being able to do that than the F-18s or even the F-16s,” Flynn said, citing his time in Serbia during Allied Force. When he and his Canadian fighters led the attack formation, some coalition aircraft were forced to downgrade warfighting capabilities to accommodate the Canadian Super Hornets that possessed neither encrypted communications nor night vision. Consequently, the Serbians knew the attacks were coming.
“Everybody has the same jet; everybody has the same capability,” Flynn said. “Everybody comes to play at an A-level, so they all march to war at the same level.”