Warplanes: The F-35 And The Invisible Enemy

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December 13, 2018: Israel now has 14 F-35A fighters and some have been operational for over a year. These F-35As have flying training missions near the Syrian border and increasingly non-training missions over Lebanon and Syria. This comes after years of overcoming opposition from the United States and allowing Israel to modify the F-35A to use Israeli electronic warfare equipment, software and also handle Israeli made missiles and smart bombs as well a smart helmet (something Israel pioneered). This led to the Israeli aircraft being designated the F-35I. Now, these aircraft have been in the air for over a year, often armed and within range of hostile radars and anti-aircraft missiles as well as the latest Russian electronic warfare equipment. Israeli engineers have also confirmed fears that the F-35 is eminently hackable. Other foreign users who have received their first F-35s agree that the heart of the F-35 superior capabilities are its software and digital communications with other aircraft and troops on the ground. Users are pointing out all manner of potential network vulnerabilities and all are actively seeking which of these vulnerabilities are actual (and fixable) rather than potential and unlikely.

Although the F-35 software was built with multiple layers of protection users have also pointed out that some of the diagnostic equipment used by ground crews are wireless that needs more scrutiny as does similar software systems for logistics. Japan and South Korea have also received their first F-35s and both nations have long, and difficult, experience dealing with Chinese and North Korean hackers and see their F-35s as a prime target. These two users have also made valuable suggestions about software and potential hardware vulnerabilities. It was noted that earlier in the year Asian and European users were searching their F-35s for Chinese made components and the possibility that some may have been manufactured with hidden features that would aid hacking efforts.

Foreign users noted how many of the F-35 systems were designed over a decade ago when much less was known about how combat aircraft software could be hacked and already some basic changes in F-35 software architecture are being planned to deal with that. This brings up another major problem. The F-35 software is more complex and omnipresent throughout the aircraft than in any previous warplane. It’s a major effort to carry out and test any changes. So some major upgrades are needed in how F-35 software changes are made and how quickly. In wartime this would be essential otherwise vulnerable aircraft would be grounded when needed most. Foreign users have also provided useful advice on penetration (“red team”) testing and have become another major effort that was not anticipated.

The U.S. and other foreign buyers of the F-35 also noted the Israeli F-35I experience eagerly. Israel got priority on deliveries because they are literally a combat zone. Initial reactions of Israeli F-35I pilots and air force commanders was positive. What the Israeli pilots and all others who have flown the F-35 agree on is that the software and the degree of automation built in is spectacular, easy to use and very effective. The F-35 has a large number of sensors (receivers for electronic signals, six cameras and a very capable radar) and the fusion of all that data and presentation to the pilot based on the current situation is impressive and makes the F-35 much easier to fly, despite all the additional capabilities it has.

This sort of thing is not a new idea. By the 1990s it was recognized that this new technology; data fusion, would be a key capability for combat aircraft (as well as ships and ground forces). Put simply, it's all about taking real-time vidcam, radar and other sensor data (sensor fusion) and other information about the battlefield situation (all sorts of databases and reports), and combining it to provide commanders with a better understanding of current operations, preferably in real time if you are a fighter pilot. The F-35 is apparently the best working example of this so far and what is learned from the F-35 software has become the basis for updated software for older aircraft. But beyond the data fusion (and automatic sharing with other aircraft or systems on the surface) the pilots were impressed about how effective the “pilot assistant” software was. This is another concept that has been around for decades and more frequently installed in new aircraft. These minor advances get reported but never make headlines. But given the F-35s stealth, maneuverability and sensor/data fusion, most pilots quickly become enthusiastic proponents of the aircraft.

Some of these early pilot reactions were dismissed by critics as public relations exaggeration. But with the Israelis, it is different because they are the first to use those new capabilities in combat and Israeli pilots have a reputation for delivering very blunt assessments (both public and otherwise) of aircraft performance. That bluntness has always been encouraged in Israel. For decades the U.S. has been building new combat aircraft and upgrades based on input from Israeli experience and that input has generally been very useful.

Potential foes are concerned and are showing it. In April 2017 it was confirmed that Russia had brought in one of its four new A-50U AWACs aircraft, in part to get a better look at the F-35I and test its capabilities. That works both ways. Similar Russian and Chinese fighter designs are behind schedule and none are in service yet.

Israel has 50 F-35Is on order with the first 33 F-35Is to arrive by 2021. The option to buy another 17 was exercised at the end of 2016, based on initial experience. The first 15-20 F-35s will be delivered as F-35As and Israel will convert them to the F-35I standard. All remaining F-35Is will be equipped as F-35Is at the American factory and delivered ready for action.

Overall by late 2018 330 F-35s had been delivered, mostly to the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps. Over 4,000 F-35s are expected to be delivered by the mid-2030s with more than 70 percent going to the United States. The 31 ton F-35 is armed with an internal 25mm cannon and, before the SDB (Small Diameter Bomb) arrived, four internal air-to-air missiles (or two missiles and two smart bombs) plus four external smart bombs and two missiles. A new bomb rack allows the F-35 to carry eight SDBs internally. All sensors are carried internally and max weapon load is 6.8 tons. The aircraft is very stealthy when just carrying internal weapons.

Currently, about 2,400 F-35s are expected to be sold, most of them the 1,700 F-35As for the U.S. Air Force and 500 to foreign customers. Most of the 540 vertical takeoff F-35Bs on order are for the U.S. Marine Corps and all of the 340 F-35Cs (aircraft carrier version) are for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. The F-35B costs about $135 million each and the F-35C about $120 million. This is more than the F-35A partly because many more F-35As are being built and the carrier versions have to be “ruggedized” to handle the harsh treatment received when it makes a carrier landing. The air force would call such an event a “hard landing” and pull the aircraft out of service for a thorough checkup for damage. The F-35C is built to regularly survive those hard landings, as well as constant exposure to corrosive salt water. The F-35B makes gentler landings and can take off like a helicopter thanks to the special engine exhaust system that puts the propulsive jet exhaust under the aircraft.

In 2001 the U.S. believed 5,100 F-35s would be sold but the rising costs and increasing delays drove that down to 3,100 by 2013 and 2,500 by 2018. Now that some F-35s are actually in service (F-35As and 35Bs) and getting good reviews from users it is hoped sales will increase. Maybe not, because there is a lot still to be discovered about how well the F-35 will do in comparison to the many F-16s, F-15s, F-18s and AV-8s it will replace. The F-35C was supposed to enter service in 2018 but now it looks like 2019 is more likely and that will not have an impact on foreign sales because few, if any, were ever expected.

 


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