The F-35 stealth fighter sure is expensive, but when a weapon like this is so dominant it won’t come cheap. And it seems not the F-35 now has a new trick up its sleeve: it can help kill cruise missiles, as explained by an expert: In a recent training exercise, an F-35A showed off its data collection and targeting skills by helping a Patriot air defender system destroy a practice cruise missile. This shows that the U.S. Army and Air Force can work together for missile defense in an interesting partnership showing off two advanced systems. This is the first time the Patriot and F-35A have acted together for a common goal.
The test happened on June 15 in Palau – a Micronesia nation in the western Pacific Ocean. The air defense system was an older PAC-2 model that consisted of two launchers. It was the first time a Patriot and F-35A displayed their mettle in a live-fire exercise outside of the United States. The target was a drone masquerading as a cruise missile.
Mind Meld Between F-35A and Patriot
Major Nicholas Chopp, a spokesman for the 94th Air and Missile Defense Command in Hawaii, said the target went out to the ocean and turned 180 degrees to head back toward the island.
The F-35A, also based in Palau, used its radar and sensors to spot the bogey and shared this data with the PAC-2s. The missile interceptors destroyed the drone at least 20 miles from the island at a height of 10,000 feet.
It’s the First Time for This Team
Sometimes U.S. Navy ships using the Aegis Combat System feed targeting information to Patriots, but this is the initial practice of the PAC-2 interacting with the F-35A.
Background on the Patriot
The Patriot system concept goes back to the 1960s when it was developed to replace the HAWK and Nike Hercules air defenders. It’s not widely reported, but Patriot is an acronym that stands for Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept On Target. It was first meant to shoot down airplanes, but the Army and Raytheon worked to make it capable against ballistic and cruise missiles.
The Army PAC-2 began its service in 2002. It was deployed in Iraq for the second Gulf War. Its interceptors can reach a speed of 3,500 miles per hour with a range of 60 miles. There are four missiles per launcher.
Leading the Team from the Air
While many observers focus on the F-35A’s stealth attributes, weapons systems, and maneuverability, the airplane can also function as a “quarterback” in the sky. As it improves its own situational awareness from radar and sensors, it shares that information with other systems.
Sensors and Processing Power of F-35
If there is an enemy airplane within range or an incoming missile, the F-35A has a friend or foe designator to classify the target. According to Nick Zazulia of Aviation Today, the F-35A assesses the situation quickly. “If a target is nearby, the system automatically assigns it a high priority and focuses its sensors and processing power on accurately determining its nature and location because it knows the pilot will imminently need to make decisions about it.”
Additional Teaming Arrangements
In the scenario with the Palau test, this information is shared with the Patriot in real-time. This is the airplane’s ability to help other systems find, fix, and destroy. It’s not only missile defense systems, the F-35A can team with drones and use unmanned craft as a family of systems.
Keep Up the Good Work, F-35
The latest test with the PAC-2 and F-35A is a significant development. It shows the multiple roles the F-35A can deliver as a mission leader that also serves as a flying computer. The PAC-2 has shown its prowess over the years building on its success during Operation Desert Storm. With the use of stand-off cruise missiles and ballistic missiles becoming more prevalent in the aerial battles space, this teaming arrangement will become more common in efforts to blast those bogeys out of the air before they can do damage to friendly forces. This tandem action is something to build on in future tests in the Indo-Pacific region – an area of operations that is becoming more volatile by the day.
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.