The F-35 Doesn’t Know What’s Shooting At it

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
Font Size:

One of the top F-35 capabilities touted by U.S. military is the fifth-generation fighter’s advanced sensor system, which combines onboard and external data to give pilots and ground troops a bigger and more detailed picture of the battlefield than ever before — that is, when they know what they’re looking at.

According to officials at the U.S. Air Force charged with delivering a combat-ready variant of its Joint Strike Fighter in late 2016, the F-35A’s sensors still aren’t sure what they’re sensing. That’s because the jet still lacks a comprehensive “threat library” — a collection of complex data files that integrate with the F-35’s sensors and software to identify what it’s detecting.

Without that data, the multi-role fighter — which will serve as a stealth information-gathering source as much as a weapon — is inundated with false alarms, particularly when it comes to the missile warning data fusion, which “is still a little too sensitive” according to one F-35 integration engineer.

“I think the probably the biggest concern is with these mission data files,” Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, who coordinates the F-35A’s integration into the Air Force, told Breaking Defense. “With any detection systems, it’s always a chore to work through what the sensor is actually seeing.”

According to a report last year by the Department of Defense director of Operational Test and Evaluation, Dr. J. Michael Gilmore — who reports to the Secretary of Defense on weapons testing — “fusion of information from own-ship sensors, as well as fusion of information from off-board sensors is still deficient.”

“The Distributed Aperture System continues to exhibit high false-alarm rates and false target tracks, and poor stability performance, even in later versions of software.”

According to an unidentified Air Force officer “involved with the building of the threat library,” that’s because much of it is still being built, and won’t be ready until close to the F-35A’s operational deadline.

Adversary sensors, weapons, frequencies and missile launches are among the key data included in the threat library, which is gathered across the intelligence community and compiled for Air Force weapons at Nellis Air Force Base.

As a result of the F-35’s ability to gather vastly more data than any fighter before, it will take time for the Air Force and Lockheed Martin engineers to figure out exactly what its sensors can and should do, and program it appropriately to take full advantage its enhanced situational awareness — in the sky and on the ground.

“As we look long at this airplane and look at the capability of the airplane to bring in all this information, how do we get it off the airplane to support the joint warfighter?” Herrigian said. “We’ve talked about it, but this will take some thinking and working with the joint team to figure out how to do it appropriately.”

Despite all the work left to do on the sensors, Herrigian repeatedly told Defense the jet will be ready on time.

“I’m very confident we are going to get to [initial operational capability] on time.”

Follow Giuseppe on Twitter and Facebook