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The F-35’s Most Important Mission: Killing Russian or Chinese Air Defenses

F-35 UAE
Capt. Andrew “Dojo” Olson, F-35 Heritage Flight Team pilot and commander, performs a high-speed pass during the Canadian International Air Show in Toronto, Sept. 1, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexander Cook)

The F-35 Lightning II is the world’s most advanced fifth-generation stealth fighter. The F-35 and its three variants allow the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps with a multirole platform capable of undertaking a wide range of air-to-air and air-to-ground missions and of boosting the combat capability and situational awareness of friendly forces in the air, at sea, and on the ground.

One of the F-35’s most important functions, however, will likely be as a challenge to the increasingly sophisticated air defenses systems deployed or in development by both Russia and China.

Anti-Access/Area Denial

One of the areas to which the United States military has devoted a significant amount of attention in recent years has been the development of Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategies by both Russia and China. A2/AD strategies are not new – with some variation of them having been employed during past conflicts and in different periods of history, even if the A2/AD label was not applied to them. Nonetheless, the concept has become a much more prominent one in recent years as adversarial military capabilities have improved.

A2/AD strategies aim to deny enemy military forces the ability to enter into or operate effectively a particular operational area. Today’s A2/AD strategies increasingly employ long-range precision strike weaponry supported by sophisticated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities as well as both electronic warfare and cyber tools.

Both Russia and China are developing A2/AD strategies and the military capabilities to support them. These developments are designed to improve both country’s ability to target both U.S. military personnel and equipment and the facilities from which they operate such as ports and air bases in their respective theaters. Doing so can be seen as a means for challenging U.S. influence and leadership in important regions of the world by excluding U.S. military forces from them, while also presenting a major challenge to the armed forces of the United States during a potential military conflict. Relevant military capabilities include a mix of ballistic and cruise missile weaponry, advanced stealth fighter aircraft, and expanded naval capabilities. Critical to both of these A2/AD strategies, however, is the increasingly advanced air-defense systems employed by both Russia and China.

Russian Air Defense

Russia employs a tiered air defense approach, and involved three layers intended to support one another. The first layer makes use of Russia’s long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems such as the S-200 and S-400 systems, which provide zones of air defense coverage up to 800 km in diameter. The second layer then makes use of medium-range systems including the S-300, while the third-tier employs more mobile short-range systems to provide point defense for important sites such as military bases.

Russia’s air defense systems are some of the world’s most advanced, some of which have also been widely exported to dozens of countries. These systems include its family of S-300 weapons, which are capable of engaging aircraft and drones at ranges between 6 and 100 km depending on the specific variant, as well as the more advanced S-400, which has a range of between 250 km and 400 km and which also offers terminal ballistic missile defense capability. Russia also appears to be approaching initial deployment of the S-500 system, which will reportedly be capable of detecting targets at ranges of up to 2000 km and engaging them at ranges of 400 km.

Chinese Air Defense

China’s air defense network employs a mix of both indigenously produced systems as well as imported Russian systems including both the S-300 as well as the S-400. China’s indigenously produced air defense weapons fall under its HQ-family of systems. The most advanced of these systems – such as the more modern variants of the HQ-9 and the hypersonic HQ-18 – are some of the world’s most capable air defense systems, and are based heavily on the Russian S-300.

F-35 and Russian and Chinese Air Defenses

The F-35 will be critical to U.S. military efforts to overcome these systems. The F-35 is built around very impressive stealth capabilities, making it uniquely well suited for the role of penetrating advanced enemy air defense networks. In addition, the F-35 is outfitted with a number of defense mechanisms as part of the aircraft’s electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, that will allow pilots to more effectively combat enemy air defenses. These include consistent and accurate multidirectional monitoring of potential threats and detection of hostile emitters, as well as the automatic release of countermeasures such as infrared flares and radar-reflecting chaff. F-35 pilots – as well as pilots flying the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor – are increasingly making use of sophisticated computer simulations in order to better understand how to defeat advanced air defense systems.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.

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