For the most part, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II has been branded by defense reporters as a strike aircraft with fighter capabilities, though Lockheed Martin has been marketing it as a multirole stealth fighter. The reason being that the F-35 is able to utilize its sensors in incredible ways to hit ground targets with considerable effectiveness, but it’s apparently lacking in the air-to-air role. All arguments on the F-35 aside, Israel, an F-35 procurement partner, has demonstrated interest in redeveloping the 5th generation fighter to include a second cockpit, optimizing it for the strike role even further than ever before.
The IAF has been after the F-35A since the program’s inception in the early 2000s, seeing it as the ideal replacement for their fleet of aging General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons, manufactured by Lockheed Martin. In Israeli service, the F-35A will be redesignated the F-35I Adir, and will be modified to feature Israeli-built hardware. And then, there’s the second cockpit, which Israel Aerospace Industries could potentially build into license-manufactured F-35Is in the future.
Generally, the backseater in a two-seat fighter helps manage the workload imposed on the pilot up front, reducing the already-heavy burden on the pilot who not only has to fly the aircraft (extremely difficult in itself), but also manage the mission he or she is tasked with. In the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, the Weapon Systems Officer (WSO or “wizzo”) does exactly what their job title suggests- man the fighter’s weapon systems, freeing the pilot to fly and focus on aerial threats. Currently, most two-seat fighters operated by NATO members (and allied nations) serve primarily as strike fighters, such as the F-15E Strike Eagle, the F/A-18F Super Hornet, Panavia Tornado GR4, etc. Since the majority of Israeli sorties involving the IAF’s fighter fleet revolve around air-to-ground-type mission settings, it makes sense that Israeli defense officials are considering bolstering the F-35’s strike capabilities beyond what it possesses at the moment. However, technology might just be what prevents this from happening.
By the time Israeli engineers find a way to reconfigure the F-35I to include room for a backseater, technology could very well jump to the point where computers can fill in completely, removing the need to have a second cockpit behind the first. Indeed, the F-22 Raptor, another Lockheed Martin product, is capable of prosecuting strike missions with ease, as its complex computer systems take over the role previously played by a WSO. The Raptor more than proved itself in the strike mission earlier this year during its combat debut, hitting Daesh-held targets in the Middle East during night operations. Conversely, Israel’s interest in the Boeing F-15SE Silent Eagle (basically a souped-up stealthed-out F-15E Strike Eagle) could also potentially reduce the chances of the two-seater F-35I ever getting off the drawing board.
A huge thanks to Peter Chilelli for coming up with the graphic featured in this post! You can check out more of Peter’s work at this link: Peter Chilelli- FineArtAmerica!