The Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) will be the eyes and ears of the fleet inside highly contested airspace when it enters the U.S. Navy’s arsenal in large numbers in the 2030s.
“Let’s say we’re in an anti-access environment and we’re going to go deep, we would launch all the airplanes off, get them all set, and we would push the F-35C way inside,” Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, the Navy’s director of air warfare told USNI News on Dec. 20. “He would go in there using his X-band stealth technology, and go in there and he would get radar contacts and surface contacts and would ID them for us.”
Under the service’s forthcoming Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) network, Manazir said targets discovered by the F-35C’s advanced sensor suite would be passed back to a Northrop Grumman E-2D to be shared with the rest of the carrier strike group. Further, F-35Cs flying deep inside enemy territory would also play a key role in providing terminal guidance for long-range stand-off weapons launched by other platforms such as Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or a warship.
However, the F-35C will need some data-link modifications, which are expected for the jet’s Block IV configuration, to perform the role the Navy intends for it. While the current version of the Link-16 data-link does not have enough of a low probably of intercept capability that would allow it to be used inside highly contested airspace, the Navy is working on a solution.
“They’re working right now, because it is a follow-on development item, Lockheed Martin is working with other contractors to make that capability happen,” Manazir said. “We need to have that link capability that the enemy can’t find and then it can’t jam.”
In order to extend the F-35C’s range, the Navy hopes to refuel the stealthy new fighter from the service’s future Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft, Manazir said. While the UCLASS would not be as stealthy as the F-35C, it could accompany the JSF into some of the more modestly contested high threat environments.
But the Navy has never operated a stealthy aircraft with the kinds of sensors found onboard the F-35C before. In order to learn how to best utilize the new fighter, one of the first units to receive the F-35C will be the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC)—which is the home of the Navy’s famous TOPGUN school.
“One of the earliest places we’re going to put Joint Strike Fighter is at NSAWC,” Manazir said. “We’ll operate them out at [Naval Air Station] Fallon [Nevada] and be able to develop those tactics real-time on the range with Block II AESA [Active Electronically Scanned Array] F/A-18Es and Fs and F-35Cs.”
Moreover, because all three F-35 variants have the same mission systems, the Navy is working very closely with the U.S. Marine Corps to develop tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) for the JSF. Manazir noted that the USMC would operate the F-35C from the Navy’s Nimitz and Ford-class supercarriers in addition to the F-35B, which will be operated from amphibious assault ships.
“We’ll be able to exploit the advantages of both kinds of aircraft,” Manazir said.
Right now the Marines are ahead of the Navy in developing the concepts of operation for the F-35.
Manazir described a recent long-range air dominance simulation exercise in which there were Marine Corps weapons officers flying the F-35C.
“They’re kind of at the leading edge of tactics development,” Manazir said. “They’re helping us into the future.”