As the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) is looking for a replacement for its TORNADO combat aircraft, MONCh had the opportunity to visit the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics factory in Fort Worth, Texas/USA to discover at first-hand what the pros and cons are for the fifth-generation fighter as a candidate. Refreshingly open and transparent in response to some very searching questions, company officials provided some surprising – and thought provoking – information.
“In contemporary integrated air defence environments, it is almost impossible for fourth generation aircraft to prosecute their missions and survive,” Director of F-35 International Business Development, Steve Over, told MONCh.
In a current generation aircraft over 90% of the radar cross-section is a result of the external weapons load and LINK 16. In the case of the F-35, the internal weapons bay removes that issue almost entirely, reducing the radar return to a hostile air defence system and contributing to the aircraft’s very low observable (VLO) characteristics.
Similarly, an F-35 with its internal fuel load of 18,000lbs will have a broadly similar range to an F-16 ‘maxed-out’ with every auxiliary fuel tank it can carry – enhancing mission execution and survivability.
Further adding to stealth, instead of using the LINK 16 datalink, the aircraft's Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) allows for stealthy communication that has a low probability of detection. To complete missions in denied airspace, pilots need a way to share information securely, without revealing their location to enemy forces. The F-35 has incorporated Northrop Grumman’s MADL into its missions systems to provide pilots with the ability to connect with other planes and automatically share situational awareness data between fighter aircraft. The MADL is a high-data-rate, directional communications link that allows for the secure transmission of coordinated tactics and engagement for 5th Generation aircraft operating in high-threat environments. The MADL is one of 27 different waveforms in the F-35’s communication, navigation and identification (CNI) suite.
The aircraft's sensor fusion engine then takes the collected data and combines it into a holistic picture that is fed to the pilot.
Would it therefore not it be sensible to add the F-35, with its sensor fusion capability and the promise of stealth, to the Luftwaffe’s force mix? Admittedly, there are significant political considerations that need to be taken into account when thinking about the commitment to the TYPHOON joint programme: but economics, security of supply and sovereign capability are all issues that can be resolved, not impenetrable obstacles to making an enlightened decision.