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How the Air Force’s F-35 Fighter Will Fly Until 2070

The F-35 is likely to thrive with its sensing, ISR, computing, and weapons attack advantages for many years into the future,

An F-35A Lightning II from the 354th Fighter Wing, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, flies behind a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 117th Air Refueling Squadron, Forbes Field Air National Guard Base, Kansas, over the Indo-Pacific, March 10, 2022. Aircrews routinely fly missions aimed at sharpening the necessary skills needed to respond to emerging situations at a moment’s notice. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Yosselin Perla)
An F-35A Lightning II from the 354th Fighter Wing, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, flies behind a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 117th Air Refueling Squadron, Forbes Field Air National Guard Base, Kansas, over the Indo-Pacific, March 10, 2022. Aircrews routinely fly missions aimed at sharpening the necessary skills needed to respond to emerging situations at a moment’s notice. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Yosselin Perla)

The Air Force plans to fly its 5th-generation F-35 all the way into the 2070s and beyond, in large measure, by advancing an ambitious continuous modernization program that relies heavily upon computing, mission systems, sensing, and software upgrades. 

Continuous Modernization Through the 2070s

Many have seen throughout the years that incremental software “drops” for the F-35 have ushered in paradigm-changing improvements such as a vastly expanded weapons envelope and guidance, and the new edition of interfaces to accommodate new weapons systems.

The Pentagon’s continuous modernization program for the F-35 was unveiled and articulated to Congress by the Joint Strike Fighter Program office many years ago, and it’s based upon the premise that the majority of breakthrough technologies in coming years are likely to be in areas of computing, sensing, weapons guidance, and mission systems.

These are all things that can be upgraded through software “drops” for the F-35, a process that has progressively become more continuous, timely, and ongoing instead of being restricted to pre-planned drops years apart. The concept is to integrate software upgrades at the speed of change to, as the Pentagon described it, “continuously” upgrade the F-35 rapidly in coming years. 

Software upgrades can completely transform the attack functionality of the F-35, with the integration of new weapons such as Stormbreaker, an innovative air-fired, all-weather weapon able to track and destroy moving targets at ranges out to 40 miles. Stormbreaker, which has been integrated into the F-35 with software drops in recent years, operates with a tri-mode seeker, meaning it can track and destroy targets with infrared RF guidance, laser targeting, and all-weather millimeter wave sensing. 

Software upgrades have enabled the air-to-air AIM-9X weapon to fire off-boresight and shift course in flight to destroy a target behind it or on the side. 

Many more software upgrades are expected in coming years, as they are essential to critical efforts to ensure the F-35 remains competitive if not superior for decades into the future. There are likely new weapons yet to be introduced and of course massive enhancements in weapons guidance and targeting. Targeting technologies and networking are not only likely to improve range and image fidelity but also harden guidance systems for weapons against countermeasures, jamming, and other enemy efforts to stop air attacks. 

Software integration, essential to ongoing improvements in F-35 performance parameters, will likely continue to achieve breakthroughs for the jet, as most of the as-of-yet enhancements are innovations are likely to be in the realm of weapons interfaces, sensing, targeting technologies, and computing. Several components such as stealth coating, seams, and bolts are expected to perform well and enhance the longevity of the airframe. Additional components such as the aircraft’s fundamental external configuration will provide additional strength in the F-35’s survival if maintained with preserved radar-absorbent materials and continued maintenance.

Breakthrough materials alongside stealth coating enhancements and protections can be added as they emerge, and design breakthroughs in stealth can integrate into the now airborne 6th-generation aircraft.  

F-35 in Action

What all of this means is that the F-35 is likely to thrive with its sensing, ISR, computing, and weapons attack advantages for many years into the future, something of critical importance given the size of the U.S. F-35 fleet and rapid emergence of rival platforms such as Russia’s Su-57 and China’s J-31

However, alongside the highly prioritized emphasis on ongoing software upgrades designed to keep pace with technological change, there may also be critical “hardware” upgrades necessary to ensure the F-35’s continued air superiority. In Air Force wargames such as Red Flag, the F-35 sensors have shown that they have the precision and image fidelity to destroy larger numbers of 4th-generation aircraft at ranges where the craft itself is not detected. However, as rival nations engineer and produce 5th-generation aircraft, some might wonder if the F-35’s unprecedented air-war advantage can be maintained. 

What if Russian and Chinese 5th-generation fighter sensing, computing, and weapons technologies are in any way comparable to the F-35? The answer to this seems largely unknown but may not seem likely given ongoing advances with the F-35, yet the Joint Strike Fighter might need more maneuverability, thrust, and fuel efficiency in the future to adapt to a new threat environment. 

AETP Worth The Investment

This is precisely why the Pentagon might be well served to ensure the F-35 does ultimately receive a massively upgraded Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP).

The breakthrough engine technologies woven into the AETP are likely to vastly outperform any enhancements introduced through simple upgrades to the existing engine. The AETP program, in development with the Air Force for many years, will involve a competition between Pratt and General Electric. A report from a former pilot arguing in favor of AETP for the F-35 offers significant detail regarding the measure of performance improvements a new engine will introduce. Many assessments of the AETP make the argument that the new technology will massively improve fuel efficiency, thrust, and thermal management far beyond current capabilities. 

“While Pratt’s XA101 is still under development, GE’s XA100 has completed testing and has proven to increase fuel efficiency by 25 percent (enabling 30 percent greater range) and increase thrust by 10 percent to 20 percent (delivering 20 percent more acceleration than the F135). The XA100 provides twice the cooling capacity, and its ceramic matrix composite turbine blades can withstand 500 degrees Fahrenheit—more heat than the F135 engine,”  John “JV” Venable writes in an article published by Breaking Defense

Venable makes a series of arguments in favor of AETP, such as a need for more range, the argument that the current F-35 engine is “maxed” for capacity, and the fast-growing extent to which the JSF will require massive, previously unprecedented amounts of onboard electrical power to support new technologies such as lasers, new avionics, breakthrough computing, mission systems, and new weapons. The report makes the case that an upgrade of the current F-35 engine simply cannot accommodate these new performance demands. Venable’s most compelling argument, however, seems to emerge in his discussion of software, as he argues that the AETP will align well with Block 4 software upgrades and continued modernization requirements. 

Should the AETP be built and integrated with the technical architecture sufficient to ensure decades of ongoing modernization, software enhancements, and electronics, it would seem to position the aircraft with improved changes to remain competitive or possibly superior to great power rival platforms. 

AETP production for both 6th- and 5th-generation aircraft such as Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and the F-35 can help streamline maintenance and logistics while also lower production costs over time due to larger delivery orders.  

Given all this, it would seem highly advisable to invest in the AETP program and the F-35’s ongoing superiority as opposed to a course of action that massively increases the risk the U.S. F-35 could be surpassed and become vulnerable to enemy 5th-generation airframes or ultimately become obsolete. Given the pace of technological change and the current threat environment, it seems highly advisable to embrace a long-term strategic approach given current plans to fly the F-35 into the 2070s.

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

Written By

Kris Osborn is the Military Editor of 19 FortyFive 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.

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