The F-35 Is Truly Special: Fundamental capabilities such as identifying a Chinese or Russian 5th-generation jet from safe stand-off ranges; ensuring a smooth and successful “glide slope” landing onto a carrier deck; merging otherwise disparate pools of information into a single organized, integrated picture for pilots; and quickly integrating new, paradigm-changing air-dropped weapons qualify the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as the “Quarterback of the sky.”
What Makes the F-35 Special
The F-35 is known as an armed fighter capable of firing a 25mm cannon, launching air-to-air-precision weapons, or even attacking with nuclear weapons. The aircraft is a multi-role fighter capable of “drone-like” surveillance, advanced datalinks, and AI-enabled computing.
These factors help explain why the F-35 is often referred to as a “flying computer,” alongside being more generally known as a high-speed, stealthy, and maneuverable multi-role attack fighter.
Much, if not most, of the jet’s advanced performance is made possible by advanced computing, something easily overlooked or even eclipsed by the jet’s other, more visible, and well-known attributes.
The jet’s well-known sensor fusion, which relies upon an advanced, AI-like ability to gather, distill, integrate, and present vast amounts of otherwise overwhelming data is enabled by computing. Interestingly, the sensor fusion concept was arguably ahead of its time.
It came into existence years ago and is described by Air Force scientists as an early iteration or integration of AI. Certainly, the F-35s onboard computing is able to gather, organize, analyze, and present otherwise disparate pools of sensor information, which it has done since the F-35 first took to the skies.
This means infrared and electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor data, navigational and terrain specifics, weapons guidance technology, and even electronic warfare (EW) information are all compiled, analyzed in relation to one another, and presented to pilots in an integrated single picture.
F-35 computing also enables its sensors to complete rapid threat identification and attack planning at safer, undetected stand-off ranges by bouncing incoming data off of its Mission Data Files database library, which catalogs known threats.
F-35 computing also brings the jet’s crucial “software drop” updates to fruition, an incremental upgrade process that continuously adds new weapons interfaces, improved sensing, and high-speed AI-enabled information processing.
The “fourth” software drop, for example, integrates the paradigm-changing Stormbreaker bomb into the jet, introducing unprecedented attack ranges up to 40 nautical miles, course-correcting two-way datalinks, and all-weather targeting technology. Computing also plays a key role in precision targeting as software upgrades can, in many cases, improve air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons performance.
This is particularly true in the case of the F-35’s AIM-120 and AIM-9X weapons, which have received flight path and guidance technology enhancements through the integration of new software.
Open Architecture on F-35 Is Unique
Much of these evolving processes or ongoing iteration of software upgrades serve to ensure continuous modernization. The process is made possible through the use of common technical standards. Often referred to as “open architecture,” the intent is to engineer a system with interoperable IP Protocol standards such that new technologies can be quickly integrated without needing to essentially “re-construct” the aircraft’s computing infrastructure.
This kind of cyber-reliant modernization trajectory for the F-35, intended to ensure the stealth jet retains its performance edge well into the 2070s and beyond, also needs to ensure that computer systems are sufficiently “hardened” against cyberattacks and intruders. While all of the F-35’s advanced computing is naturally bringing unparalleled and potentially breakthrough systems to war in ways that may not have even been anticipated, added computer networking can also introduce new vulnerabilities.
Author Expertise and Biography
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.