A structural modification is needed because the F-35 aircraft will be fitted with new munitions and/or sensors to carry out the role.
On Jun. 1, 2020 Lockheed Martin was awarded a $26.7 million contract by the Pentagon to develop a structural modification for the F-35 Lightning II strike fighter to improve its Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses capability (SEAD/DEAD). According to Air Force Magazine, the retrofit design will be applied to both US and foreign F-35s in Lots 14 and 15, and will be completed by August 2022.
Lockheed explains that the contract, that issued by Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) on behalf of all F-35 users, will see the company to perform the engineering necessary to modify the aircraft to perform “full up” SEAD and DEAD. The current F-35A’s SEAD/DEAD suite is able to perform the mission in a “limited” fashion. A structural modification is needed because the aircraft will be fitted with new munitions and/or sensors to carry out the role (which usually involves detecting, fixing, and attacking ground-based air defense threats, that can be mobile or stationary).
When the F-35A’s initial operational capability (IOC) was declared by the US Air Force (USAF), the aircraft was in the 3i configuration, which gave it capability to release satellite-guided bombs. With the 3F version, the F-35 gained capability for the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb and AGM-154 Stand-Off Weapon—both used for SEAD/DEAD. The Block 4 upgrade will enable the F-35 to carry the in-development Stand-in Attack Weapon (SiAW).
The Navy plans to field its AGM-88E Anti-Radiation Guided Missile, a successor to the HARM anti-radiation missile. The Air Force is considering the weapon, as well.
The ASQ-239 electronic warfare system of the F-35 can passively detect an enemy air defense system’s emissions and geo-locate these targets in concert with the F-35’s other systems. USAF leaders have said that thanks to its stealthiness, the F-35 will become the main platform for the SEAD/DEAD mission in the coming decade.
Currently Wild Weasels (as the USAF pilots tasked to perform the SEAD mission are nicknamed) fly F-16CM Block 50 Fighting Falcons, typically equipped with a state of the art HARM Targeting System pod, two High speed Anti-Radiation Missiles and a self-protection jammer.
Weasels typically fly four-ship sets. Their HTS pods are able to identify, geo-locate, and display multiple targets within the area of responsibility to the pilot. This targeting system is the cornerstone of the SEAD mission, providing substantial situational awareness to pilots on the types and locations of surface-to-air defense radars, as well as passing ranging solutions to the HARM missile when launched. While the mission set is primarily SEAD, Wild Weasels have also implemented various areas of DEAD. Flying the four-ship formations, mixed load outs of both HARMs and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions are employed. With the aid of Advanced Targeting Pods, the JDAMS are dropped on the enemy’s radar systems, inflicting more permanent damage than only suppression. This method is used to clear larger lanes of radar sites to facilitate the follow-on of larger forces.
Additional technology upgrades have come in the form of the Link 16 datalink system that allows pilots split-second communication to and from other F-16s while simultaneously computing and sharing tactical pictures in near-real time. On top of the Link 16, the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System also allows pilots the freedom to obtain situational awareness and cue weapon systems in the direction their head is pointed, instead of relying on the Heads Up Display.
Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury / U.S. Air Force