F-35s Can Now Function as Airborne Spotters for US Navy Warships

A US Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II (STOVL variant) just proved, a few days ago, that it could successfully function as a spotter of sorts for US Navy surface warships that are equipped with the Aegis Combat System, a highly advanced integrated tracking system that uses radars and powerful computers to quickly hone in on enemy targets and attack them using guided missiles. In a test flight at the White Sands Missile Range, the Marines’ F-35B (which, by the way, was not modified for the test in any way, shape or form) locked onto a threat beyond visual range of the USS Desert Ship (a simulated destroyer with an attached Aegis setup parked in the desert at White Sands), then passed information over to the Desert Ship which engaged and destroyed the target using a Standard Missile-6 (SM-6) supersonic missile.

This test was the very first of its kind, and the latest in a series of evaluations carried out for the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) system, which was created to turn all surface naval vessels and aircraft into one giant network of data-sharing. Using the F-35’s onboard sensors , the Desert Ship was able to hit its target with the SM-6 by loading up the the guidance system with the exact coordinates and targeting information gathered by the F-35. One of the biggest selling features of the F-35 was its highly-developed sensor suite, which generates a shareable visualization of virtually everything operating in the battlespace the F-35 flies in without the F-35 being detected at all. So, if you think about it, in addition to all the other things this stealth fighter can do, it can also technically score [combined] kills using missiles that it isn’t even carrying!

An older photo of the USS Desert Ship. Note that it actually looks absolutely nothing like a ship. (Picture from the Jerry Crouch Collection)

Now bear with me, we’re about to enter the acronym twilight zone.

The CEC (short for Cooperative Engagement Capability) will be the functional core of the NIFC-CA, allowing for data to be shared seamlessly between the F-35 Lightning II, E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, UCLASS drones or F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and Aegis-equipped vessels. By passing information throughout this massive network, the threat of having the system jammed or corrupted by enemy action diminishes exponentially, and also increases the situational awareness of other players on the field. This is basically the capability the US Navy had hoped to achieve when it first activated the Aegis Combat System in the 1980s aboard its Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers.

The SM-6, also known as the RIM-174 Standard Extended Range Active Missile (ERAM), was developed only three years ago as a long-range anti-aircraft missile to be used aboard destroyers and cruisers. In February of this year, American Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made known the US Navy’s plans to modify the SM-6 for anti-shipping operations (meaning that it will be able to engage ships and other maritime vessels as well). The range of the SM-6 extends the offensive coverage of surface warships considerably, and when used in conjunction with the spotting abilities of fighters, drones and airborne early warning aircraft like the Advanced Hawkeye, destroyer and cruiser commanders can fully utilize the SM-6 to its greatest potential, making their warships even more lethal than ever before.

NIFC-CA will soon be in use aboard Arleigh Burke-class destroyers like this one, the USS Stout (DDG 55). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Bill Dodge/Released)

In addition to the United States, Aegis is currently in use in Japan, South Korea, Australia and Norway, and each of these countries are slated to procure the F-35A Lightning II. This could potentially mean that NIFC-CA and CEC will be exported to America’s foreign military partners; especially useful at the moment when taking into account a burgeoning Chinese navy and a Russian navy in the process of a massive refurbishment.

In the modern age of warfare, sharing information between friendly assets is supremely important if you want to win battles. Generating an up-to-date picture of the environment surrounding the units a commander has in play gives him the ability to strike before his opponent can, using the weaponry in his arsenal in an effective and precise manner. And to that end, the F-35 Lightning II has just proven that it won’t just enhance current American warfighting capabilities, but rather, change the game altogether.

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