AF Tests F‑35, Stealth Fleet for Integrated Electronic Warfare

 In U.S. Air Force, Defense, U.S. Army, Air, Forces & Capabilities, U.S. Navy

F-35As over Nellis AFB, Nevada

WASHINGTON: The Air Force just wrapped up a first-of-its-kind test to hone how stealthy air­craft can work in tandem in highly con­test­ed air­space — with the F-35A pro­vid­ing crit­i­cal anti-air defense cover for older air­craft, includ­ing the B‑2 bomber and the highly clas­si­fied RQ-170 sur­veil­lance drone.

The two-day exer­cise at Nellis AFB in Nevada also includ­ed Air Force F‑22, F‑15E fight­ers and the Navy’s E/A‑18G Growler elec­tron­ic war­fare plane, with the aim of pair­ing fourth- and fifth-gen­er­a­tion air­craft in con­duct­ing elec­tron­ic attacks (EA) mis­sions.

“Most people don’t think of F‑35s as elec­tron­ic war­fare air­craft — but they are, and they are incred­i­bly capa­ble,” Mark Gunzinger, direc­tor for future con­cepts and tech­nol­o­gy assess­ments at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told Breaking D in an email today. (Breaking D read­ers have known that for a much longer time than most.)

“F‑35s have EW suites that can detect emis­sions from radars and other threats, clas­si­fy and geolo­cate them, and then dis­trib­ute threat data to other air­craft. They can also per­form active EW tasks such as stand­off jam­ming of air­borne and sur­face threats. Their active elec­tron­i­cal­ly scanned array (AESA) radars can also con­duct elec­tron­ic attacks,” he explained.

The $1.4 mil­lion Large Force Test Event  was “designed to find solu­tions to Air Force pri­or­i­tized Tactics Improvement Proposals for Suppression of Enemy Air Defense, low-observ­able ingress, and 4th-5th gen­er­a­tion elec­tron­ic attack inter­op­er­abil­i­ty,” the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group says in a press release today. “As a result of the LFTE, the Air Force to explore unique inte­gra­tion of tac­tics, tech­niques, and pro­ce­dures that have never been tested togeth­er,” the release added.

“This exer­cise is pri­mar­i­ly focused on demon­strat­ing LO [low observ­able] plat­form effec­tive­ness against advanced threats,” Maj Theodore Ellis, chief of 53rd Wing Weapons, says in the release. “We do this by uti­liz­ing emerg­ing tech­nol­o­gy and tac­tics to min­i­mize weak­ness­es and cap­i­tal­ize on joint capa­bil­i­ties.”

“An LFTE is so impor­tant because it’s not sin­gu­lar­ly focused on one plat­form, but rather on the col­lab­o­ra­tion and inter­con­nec­tiv­i­ty,” 1st Lt. Savanah Bray, an Air Force spokesper­son, says in an email to Breaking D. “So, it’s not focused on the F‑35’s EW capa­bil­i­ties against SEAD, but rather how the plat­forms are able to syn­er­gize in a sin­gu­lar effort.”

That said, the test event was also an oppor­tu­ni­ty for Air Force lead­ers to explore the F‑35’s abil­i­ties to play a lead­ing role in direct­ing multi-domain oper­a­tions — a role that just-retired former Chief of Staff David Goldfein likened to the “quar­ter­back” of a foot­ball team call­ing out plays.

“The Large Force Test Event high­lights the F‑35’s abil­i­ty to inte­grate both legacy air­craft, as well as other high-end assets includ­ing other F‑35s, to achieve mis­sion suc­cess and sur­viv­abil­i­ty using a com­bi­na­tion of stealth, elec­tron­ic attack, infor­ma­tion shar­ing, and other mea­sures,” Brett Ashworth, spokesper­son for prime con­trac­tor Lockheed Martin, says in an email to Breaking D today.

That capa­bil­i­ty was also on dis­play during the 2020 ver­sion of the annual Orange Flag exer­cise at Edwards AFB in California. The Air Force F‑35A col­lect­ed tar­get­ing data and bounced it to a U‑2 spy plane ser­vice as an air­borne com­mu­ni­ca­tions node, as well as to a sim­u­lat­ed Army Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS). IBCS, as Breaking D read­ers know, is the Army’s high-pri­or­i­ty com­mand and con­trol system for its mis­sile defense weapons — a system that Strategic Command chief Adm. Charles Richards says is critical to enabling all domain operations. 

“The abil­i­ty to share their oper­a­tional pic­ture, act as battle man­agers, and per­form as elec­tron­ic war­fare assets make F‑35s potent force mul­ti­pli­ers,” Gunzinger said.

The sup­pres­sion of enemy air defens­es mis­sion, known as SEAD, has become a more press­ing need in recent years, accord­ing to air war­fare experts.

First, peer com­peti­tors such as Russia and China have spent much time and trea­sure improv­ing their anti-access/area denial capa­bil­i­ties, also help­ing to spur proliferation of sophisticated air defenses to countries such as Iran. Advances in intel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and recon­nais­sance, includ­ing space-based, also have raised the like­li­hood that stealth tech­nolo­gies will be ren­dered moot.

“Perhaps most impor­tant­ly, many believe that stealth is per­ish­able anyway — imply­ing the need, at least in the future, for EA/SEAD coop­er­a­tion,” Teal Group’s Richard Aboulafia told Breaking D in an email today.

But also, the new empha­sis on EA and SEAD has been borne of choic­es made by the Air Force itself, large­ly due to bud­getary pres­sures.

“Originally, USAF wanted to be an all fifth-gen force, with no need of Electronic Attack/SEAD. Then, it was a divi­sion of labor — fifth-gen for kick­ing down the door; legacy assets for day two and beyond,” Aboulafia explained. “But it’s increas­ing­ly clear that the Navy will have very little fifth-gen, and that they’ll need to coop­er­ate. And given the F‑15 pro­cure­ment re-start, it’s clear that the Air Force will need to work with fourth-gen plat­forms in many roles for many decades to come.”

LFTEs “are Air Combat Command’s prin­ci­pal event for oper­a­tional test warfight­ers to eval­u­ate the suit­abil­i­ty and effec­tive­ness of emerg­ing capa­bil­i­ties within an inte­grat­ed and oper­a­tional­ly real­is­tic sce­nario,” the Air Force press release explained. “Unlike joint or mul­ti­ple-plat­form exer­cis­es that focus on the train­ing and readi­ness for units with field­ed capa­bil­i­ties, such as Red Flag, LFTEs focus on yet to be field­ed hard­ware, soft­ware, and tac­tics. Results from LFTEs inform a wide range of efforts to include capa­bil­i­ty devel­op­ment and the latest tac­tics, with a focus on inte­gra­tion.”

“Through events like these, we con­tin­ue to improve our joint 4th and 5th gen­er­a­tion tac­tics, which enhances our abil­i­ties in an advanced threat envi­ron­ment,” said Ellis.

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