December 7, 2008 (by Eric L. Palmer) - The concept of having the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter become some kind of specialized electronic jamming aircraft amounts to unrealistic dreams.
F-35B on approach into NAS Fort Worth after a successful first flight on June 11th, 2008.
The F-35 was designed to be a tactical strike aircraft. When one looks at what it takes to make the F-35 into a dedicated jamming aircraft, the dream faces stark reality. Jamming aircraft need extra aircrew. There are no plans to make the F-35 anything other than a single-seat aircraft. When the U.S. Navy decided to replace it’s EA-6 electronic jamming aircraft which has four aircrew with that of the EA-18G “Growler” which has two aircrew, concerns were brought up in relation to aircrew reduction. No matter what the technology, the aircrew workload for the electronic jamming mission is challenging. Halving the crew yet again from the Growler to an EA-35 limits the workload that can be done even more.
The next issue with trying to turn the F-35 into some kind of equivalent to an EA-6 or EA-18G is electrical power needed to run the equipment. As it stands now the F-35 will be at its limits to secure enough power to run extra systems beyond the original design. One could put pods on the wings with windmill generators yet these devices would still need extra internal gear inside the aircraft to make the whole system work. Note also that current and past designs of electronic jamming aircraft have multiple engines for a reason. Multiple engine aircraft give you more electrical generators.
After all this comes heat. The current design of the F-35 has heat-sink issues. Stealth aircraft are such because “apertures” like air-ducts, are limited in the design so as to keep a good low-observable profile. The F-35 uses on-board fuel to help dissipate heat build up created by various systems. Even with all the other challenges of trying to make some kind of EA-35, the issue of how to handle heat build-up with this design is formidable.
What kind of “electronic attack” can one expect from the stock F-35 design? While the on-board APG-81 radar will offer some form of "electronic attack", that will be within the limits of cooling of the radar kit, the power of the radar, computer hardware and software limits, field of view of the radar and the fact that it will only be able to have an affect on threats in it's own bandwidth: X-band. When one looks at current and future “integrated air defense” (IAD) systems the F-35 will be limited in any “go it alone” marketing claims that have been presented in the selling of the aircraft. Because the aircraft does not possess the kinds of extreme super-cruise and altitude ability of the F-22 which is comfortable at 65.000ft and around Mach 1.8, the affordable stealth design and limited electronic attack ability means that it will be anything but “go it alone” when facing modern IADs long into the future. With the continuous downturn of electronic warfare skill-sets by the U.S. since the Cold War, even the F-22 will have to be very careful when facing modern surface-to-air missile systems.
When one looks at the F-35 design, improving electronic “attack” looks less likely as opposed to improving electronic “defense.” What one thing would improve the survivability of the F-35 in any electronic defense scenario? Most likely a towed decoy such as the ALE-55 which is integrated with the internal self-defense jammer of the new Block II version of the F-18 Super Hornet. The ALE-55 is a significant upgrade from the ALE-50 that has been fielded for years in various U.S. aircraft. The ALE-50 did well in 1999 in Operation Allied Force against legacy IADs systems.
The F-35 has a long way to go before it will be able to prove what it was originally designed for: An affordable stealth strike fighter. Even if it excels at it’s original design, the idea of planning to have it be some kind of jamming aircraft on par with the EA-6 or EA-18G will be like trying to get blood out of a turnip. It’s best if all the engineers just stick to their knitting and press on with delivering the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter based on the original vision of its creators.