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Can the F-35 Remain the Best Fighter Jet on Earth?

An F-35B Lightning II with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, San Diego, California, conducts an aerial demonstration during the 2022 MCAS Air Show at MCAS Miramar, Sept. 24, 2022. The F-35B Lightning II, flown by aviators with Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 502, is equipped with short takeoff and vertical landing capability that expands its range by allowing it to operate from naval vessels and in austere, expeditionary environments. The theme for the 2022 MCAS Miramar Air Show, “Marines Fight, Evolve and Win,” reflects the Marine Corps’ ongoing modernization efforts to prepare for future conflicts. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jose S. GuerreroDeLeon)

F-35 to Receive Next-Generation Radar and Other Improvements: The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II remains the most capable multirole fighter in service in the world today, but efforts have been ongoing to ensure that the fifth-generation stealth aircraft is able to maintain its edge for decades to come.

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This month Northrop Grumman announced that it was developing a next-generation radar suite for the F-35.

F-35 Keeps Getting Better 

Already, Northrop Grumman manufactures the AN/APG-81 active electronically scanned array (AESA) fire control radar, the cornerstone to the F-35 Lightning II’s sensor suite, but it will now develop the improved AN/APG-85, an advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. The multifunction sensor will be compatible with all variants of the F-35 aircraft and will be capable of defeating current and projected adversarial air and surface threats.

According to the aerospace firm, the development and integration of APG-85 will incorporate some of the latest technologies available and help ensure air superiority.

“This advanced sensor will provide unparalleled battlespace situational awareness that translates into platform lethality, effectiveness, and survivability,” the company announced.

Loyal Program Wingman

Though not the prime contractor for the Lightning II program, Northrop Grumman still plays a key role in the development, modernization, sustainment, and production of the advanced aircraft. In addition to producing the AN/APG-85 and AN/APG-81 radars, the company further manufactures the center fuselage and wing skins for the aircraft; produces and maintains several sensor systems, avionics, mission systems, and mission-planning software, along with pilot and maintainer training systems courseware, electronic warfare simulation test capability, and low-observable technologies.

It was two years ago that Northrop Grumman also received a contract award from prime contractor Lockheed Martin to help enable new functionality for the F-35. Under a collaborative agreement that also included BAE Systems, the companies worked to integrate Northrop Grumman’s AN/ASQ-242 Integrated Communications, Navigation and Identification (ICNI) and BAE Systems’ AN/ASQ-239 Electronic Warfare/Countermeasures (EW/CM) system for optimal operational utility.

The first F-35s equipped with the new AESA radar will be part of the upcoming Lot 17, which includes seven aircraft of the F-35A version. Those are reported to include aircraft for Poland, Belgium, and Finland, which are part of a 398-plane contract.

Latest Tech Refresh

It was also reported this month that the F-35 Block 4 will feature a number of significant updates, including modifications to the weapons bay as well as the cooling system. 

On January 6 of this year, the developmental test team from the 461st Flight Test Squadron conducted the first flight of an F-35 Lightning II utilizing the Tech Refresh 3 (TR-3) package, which also included a new integrated processor, a panoramic instrument panel and a more capable aircraft memory system.

“This is a significant achievement for the F-35 program,” said Lt. Gen. Mike Schmidt, F-35 Joint Program Office program executive officer. “TR-3 is the F-35’s critical computer processing electronics upgrade that will continue to provide all our pilots with the capability they need to be successful against any adversary. There is still a lot of work to do, and I am confident that our industry partners and government team will get the job done.”

According to the United States Air Force, the TR-3 provides the computational horsepower to support modernized Block 4 capabilities for the F-35 including new sensor suites, more long-range precision weapons, improved electronic warfare features, more powerful data fusion, and increased cross-platform interoperability. The capabilities are further meant to provide the warfighter with a combat edge to identify, track, engage, and survive against advanced air, ground, and cyber threats.

“TR-3 significantly updates core processing power and memory capacity, which will allow the F-35 to run advanced software packed with state-of-the-art warfighting capabilities,” the Air Force added.

Rising Cost, But Worth Every Penny 

However, the development of the TR-3 package did prove a bit more difficult and expensive than initially expected, and according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the increased complication of the TR-3 package drove the cost of the Block 4 modernization effort up by $330 million in 2021.

Yet, it will ensure that the Lightning II is able to maintain its edge, well into the 2030s and beyond.

The first F-35s with the TR-3 installed will be part of lot 15, which is now under construction – while deliveries are expected in the second half of this year.


F-35 Stealth Fighter. Image Credit: U.S. Military.

Author Experience and Expertise: A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

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