The F-35, UK, and Coalition Operations: Capable, But Flawed

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The F-35 will bring two important capabilities, which are currently not possessed by the UK armed forces, when it enters frontline service at the end of this decade. The first is the capability to operate inside airspace which is defended by high-end air defence systems, such as the Russian SA-21 and Chinese HQ-9. The second is as a short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) carrier aircraft to replace the Royal Navy’s Sea Harrier fleet defence fighters and the RAF/RN Joint Harrier Force’s Harrier GR.7/9 strike fighters, which were retired in 2006 and 2010 respectively.

The RAF’s current Tornado GR.4 and Typhoon FGR.4 fast jets (along with the U.S. Air Force’s own F-15 and F-16 fighters) would be unacceptable levels of risk if required to operate inside the missile engagement zone (MEZ) of a ‘triple digit’ SAM system such as the SA-21. Since Russia and China are actively exporting extremely capable air defence systems to countries around the world, including potential NATO adversaries such as Iran and Syria, this is a serious operational limitation for the UK. The F-35 will enable the UK to join the USAF and other F-35 partner nations on “night one, wave one” operations against near-peer and even peer adversaries for the foreseeable future, whereas at present, the USAF is the only force capable of conducting SEAD/DEAD missions (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences/Destruction of Enemy Air Defences) against modern IADS (Integrated Air Defense Systems) networks with its F-22 and B-2 stealth aircraft.

The F-35B will bring fifth-generation situational awareness and strike package survivability to the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, which use a ski-jump ramp to launch STOVL fighters rather than the catapult and arrestor-wire setup used by the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz and Gerald Ford class supercarriers. This arrangement is also being exploited by the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), which already operates the F-35B variant and after 2018, will use the Royal Navy’s new carriers to supplement their usual “gator navy” amphibious assault ships in coalition operations. Likewise, British F-35Bs will be able to “cross-deck” with the USMC, although not on the U.S. Navy’s nuclear carriers.

The limitation of the F-35B compared with the U.S. Navy’s C-model is its shorter range on internal fuel and smaller internal weapons payload. This means that unlike the U.S. Navy, which relies on F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in buddy-tanker configuration to extend the range of its strike packages, the UK’s carriers will have no organic aerial refuelling capabilities and so will have to get closer to enemy coastlines, and may not be able to seamlessly integrate with U.S. Navy carrier battlegroup operations. There are efforts to adapt the V-22 Osprey for aerial refuelling, but the UK is not currently a V-22 operator, and the usable fuel offload capability for a V-22 is well below that of a Super Hornet in buddy tanker configuration.

In terms of what the F-35 can contribute as part of a UK or coalition strike package alongside legacy 4th and 4.5th generation assets, its greatest role will be to create temporary “sanitised” corridors through enemy air defences using pinpoint strikes and electronic warfare for more vulnerable assets to fly in and deliver the main strike weight.  This will greatly enhance the situational awareness of those legacy assets by sharing the data that its own sensors collect, process, and fuse together automatically.

There are challenges remaining in terms of allowing the F-35 to share the unparalleled situational awareness picture which its sensor suite generates for the pilot with other non-F-35 assets. The stealthy and high-bandwidth multifunction advanced datalink (MADL) that F-35s use to communicate with each other in flight, currently requires an adaptor, such as Northrop Grumman’s BACN mounted on another aircraft or UAV within line of sight, to translate the MADL data into Link 16, which legacy fighters can then receive and process. This process is also not automatic at present. The RAF and Royal Navy are aware that if they can either purchase sufficient “translation and relay” capabilities or otherwise upgrade existing assets like Typhoon and the Type 45 air defence destroyer, then the F-35 offers the capability to radically enhance the combat effectiveness of these existing platforms by increasing the range at which they can engage high-threat targets and detect incoming threats. At the same time, networking friendly UK or international coalition assets seamlessly with the UK’s own F-35s can help to overcome one of the F-35’s significant drawbacks, which is its weapon capacity when in stealthy configuration. The F-35B can carry a maximum of four air-to-air missiles internally or two when also carrying two bombs for strike missions. This means that if, for example, Typhoons operating behind the F-35s can be linked up to fire their much larger missile payloads from long range at targets detected and designated by the F-35s, the F-35 itself will be much more survivable and persistent in high-threat environments.

When examining interoperability and networking challenges within national armed forces, let alone coalitions, incompatibility of different platforms is a central problem. Once mature, the F-35 should greatly reduce this issue for coalition operations since, in theory at least, every F-35 in a coalition should be fully compatible with every other F-35, regardless of which air force or navy is operating them. However, at the moment, the U.S. Marine Corps is still having trouble getting its own F-35s to share data via MADL between more than two F-35s at once, so this ideal is still very much a work in progress. 

A full length report on the challenges and opportunities for the UK armed forces in integrating the F-35 authored by Justin Bronk can be found here.

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