Lockheed Martin’s fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter jets have cemented United States’ reputation as an absolute powerhouse when it comes to devising futuristic aerodynamic designs and blending it with state-of-the-art features to create a magnificent combat aircraft in a league of its own.
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Despite the F-35 fighter jet programme being plagued by its fair share of problems, the relentless pace of research by experts in the development of the stealthy fighters have forced nations like France, Germany and the United Kingdom to skip building a fifth-generation fighter altogether.
With the Pentagon already on course of welcoming their sixth-generation fighter jet in the coming years- having secretly flown a full-scale flight demonstrator last month under the ambitious Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, there are indications that the F-35s will also be upgraded with sixth-generation capabilities.
While the US Air Force has plans to field its next-generation fighter jet to supplement the stealth duo of the F-35 Lightning and F-22 Raptors, they have their hearts set on acquiring more than 1,700 F-35s, in a bid to modify and keep them in service till 2070.
Under Air Force’s “Continuous Development Upgrade Program” for the F-35s, configurations of the fighters will be upgraded in spheres of its software, advanced sensing and Artificial Intelligence (AI) without a need to change its airframe configuration.
Lockheed had designed the aircraft while having a bigger picture in mind which aimed at making the F-35s upgradable for decades beyond its current deployment.
Michele Evans, Lockheed’s head of aeronautics, had earlier said – “It’s a compliment to the F-35 that many countries are looking to replicate fifth-gen and then extending that to sixth-gen,”
I think it really does reflect on the value of what F-35 is bringing to the pilots and the battlespace. In terms of technology, we’re not going to let F-35 go static.”
One area where the F-35s may have a modification is in its advanced sensor suite, which is considered to be the best among the current crop of fighter jets. The fighters could be upgraded with sensors and weapon configurations, which just exist on the paper, as of now.
Moreover, with the F-35s not having a manned-unmanned team as part of its program could soon change. According to Lockheed’s vice president and general manager of the F-35 program, Greg Ulmer,
“I think the F-35 is very well-positioned for manned-unmanned teaming. The data sensor fusion approach to the airplane as well as our relationship with our brethren at Skunk Works, I think we’re very well-aligned.”
Lockheed Martin also aims to have an open-architecture backbone for its modern fighters in a bid to boost its capabilities through new software. “You’ll see year over year over year we’re going to have an incremental update. Rather than biting it all off (at one time) and waiting for a big-bang tech insertion, we’re going to trickle that out,” said Ulmer.
An area which gives the F-35s absolute superiority over other jets is its stealth technology, which enables it to go undetected on enemy radars. However, with the introduction of Russia’s S-400 missile defence systems, it has become Pentagon’s immediate priority to modernise jets before it becomes obsolete.
Kris Osborn, Defence Editor of the Washington-based conservative international affairs magazine, The National Interest, writes – “Stealth coating can be maintained and upgraded, weapons’ lethality and guidance systems can be upgraded with software as we have seen with the both the F-35 and F-22, and engine enhancements decreasing heat emissions or increasing propulsion and manoeuvrability are also entirely possible as well,”
This means that all the evidence points to the continued, long-term operational relevance of the F-22s and F-35s. The Air Force already plans to fly the F-35 until 2070 and the F-22 all the way to 2060.”
Moreover, with the faster-than-expected development of US Air Force’s next-generation fighter, it can be safe to say that its futuristic technologies would not just be used for the F-35s but also fo the F-22 Raptors.
Their air-to-air dominance, continued upgrades and exceptional combat performance led many senior officials to argue in favour of restarting the F-22 production. However, the thinking was to simply build a newer, better, even more capable F-22-like platform able to leverage and optimize several breakthrough technologies,” said Osborn.