The Weaponization of the F-35


By the end of the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase, the F-35 will be capable of carrying almost every legacy weapon that is carried by an F-16.

A subset of these weapons are designed to be loaded internally for stealth operation, and the superset can be loaded externally when stealth is of less significance.

Stealth allows 5th Generation fighters to safely penetrate denied airspace, while 4th Generation aircraft would be exposed and unable to operate in this environment due to their larger radar signature.

The internal ordinance of an F-35 is approximately that of an F-16 loaded “wall to wall.”  Because the weapons are internal, the F-35 has a much longer combat range fully loaded and significantly longer loiter time in the area of interest.

The internal payload of an F-35 is greater than 5,000lbs.

In the permissive environment, the F-35 holds another advantage over the F-16: payload.

F 35 and Current Weapons


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The F-35 has 11 hard points and can carry about three times (18,000lbs) the stores load of that of an F-16.

The F-35 at Block 2, will be certified to use air and surface munitions.

This initial certification will be for Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) and Advanced Air to Air Missiles (AMRAAM). At Block 3, it will be certified for the remainder of SDD weapons to include Small Diameter Bombs (SDB). It can carry up to eight small diameter bombs internally. SDB II will be the first weapon re-configured for 5th Generation aircraft.

There are places F-16s can’t go with a weapon load because it makes the radar cross-section so big they get targeted at extreme ranges. However, the F-35 can carry about the same load internally while preserving stealth and agility into the target area.

Engine efficiencies play here as well.

From the pilot point of view, the engine is pilot proof. You just move the thrust lever and Pratt & Whitney does the rest. There’s nothing to manage except the thrust level.  The engine is another example of managed single seat workload.

“I realize we haven’t discussed Short Takeoff and Vertical Land (STOVL) operations, but this is the perfect example. Thrust management from wingborne flight to semi-jet to jetborne is seamless. The simulator is so easy to fly in STOVL mode that we can teach non-pilots in about 5 minutes to do this safely. The test pilots have told me the simulator is too hard compared to the real airplane!” says Mike Skaff, principal engineer for the F-35’s pilot vehicle interface

This year at Edwards Air Force base, the base line weapons testing and certification is underway for Block 2 software. Block 3 software is also nearing completion and will further expand the inventory of legacy weapons that can be carried on the plane.

The F-35 is laying the foundation to both work with and shape the developmental approach to new weapons.

We are starting to see advancements in net enabled weapons. Indeed, weapons and unmanned vehicles have much in common. They’re getting smarter and smarter which means as we drop them, it’s not a dumb bomb anymore; it’s got wings and control surfaces. It uses a robust interface to the jet before it was dropped and it will probably use an advanced datalink to interface back to the jet while it’s in flight.

We’ll start to see the weapon manufacturers design and build weapons which fit in the F-35’s bays. The bays are big enough and the airplane is designed from a foundation which can be grown over the life of the jet.

Remember, the concept of a software-defined jet? This is the payoff:

We are poised to talk to smarter and smarter and more advanced weapons.

Indeed, the fusion engine and the ability of the aircraft come together to create a new developmental environment for weapons evolution. It can be a fleet-wide operational use of the weapons rather than just platform, a single plane-specific or even platform-specific.

We have a 5th Generation foundation and now as the weapons makers develop 5th Generation weapons, we’re ready to carry them and to employ them and they’ll be part of the synergy.

We talked earlier before about the common operational picture (COP). The weapons will be part of the COP before they’re dropped out of the airplane. We can download the relevant items from the COP to the weapon such that it knows what environment it is being released into and depending on specific weapons development, the weapon will dialogue with the fleet, and perhaps, be controlled by the fleet.

This could mean that re-programmability in flight becomes an option and with that option a much more effective use of weapons against targets.

Additionally, this technology allows for “controllability” of the weapons in constrained operational environments.

Pilots have joked about their weapons being little skinny wingman. Well now they are truly like wingman as we send them off into the battle space. They begin to glean information and send data back to us in the same way that 5th Generation airplanes can go ahead of the 4th Generation and begin to identify battle space and send that information back to the 4th Generation aircraft.

Enhanced synergy and effectiveness of the combat systems enterprise is the result.

The common fleet not only impacts on operational capabilities and flexibility but affects the very ability to design, build and deploy new weapons.

Economies of scale and economies of commonality are key drivers for the next generation of weapons.  The F-35 program involves three U.S. services, eight partners, and others coming onboard.

What’s good for one is good for all.

When we come together and decide we want to integrate a weapon, whether or not I choose to ever carry that weapon, I get the exact same software in my jet. The same for the pilot vehicle interface. It’s identical regardless of variant, regardless of nation. It’s the same.

The only difference is in how or what you might take off and land from.

We all pay for the software once in this economy of commonality. Because we will use all the same weapons, we all get the huge economies of scale rather than having disparate weapons across the fleet. This concept extends to our allies.

Normally, a weapon is developed for a specific aircraft or series model.  The weapon is then tested for 18 or more months.  It can only be used on the tested aircraft.

With the F-35, a development for the A, B, or C is the same from a software point of view.

Testing for one is testing for all.  Sort of the three musketeers approach to weapons development: “all for one and one for all” was the rally cry.

The variants are somewhat different aerodynamically which may necessitate testing for each variant for carriage and separation, but the software across the fleet is the same.

This approach is not entirely new.

To a degree we did this with the F-16. But now we really jump the gap with the F-35 and lay the foundation for a whole new approach with the USAF, USMC, USN, and eight international partners.

The F-35 uses the same advanced weapons separation system as on the F-22.  The pneumatic air weapons eject system uses bleed air from the engine to basically eject the weapon away.

The F-16, F-15, F-18, A-10 other legacy type platforms use a shotgun shell type of explosive device.  These devices are basically used to safely push the weapon or push the missile away from the aircraft to allow it to separate and then operate as designed.

This shift in how you eject weapons is another layer of maintenance touch hours, labor hours, time consumed in order to accommodate making sure that you have the airplane safe for maintenance. It becomes a footprint item when you try to mobilize and deploy with these things.  You have to accommodate for these explosive items in order to carry or airlift them in the theater.

You have to make this aircraft safe for maintenance in order to put the aircraft into a hush house and do an engine run or to take it into a hanger. You have to download those carts off the airplane and so it ends up taking time that in the F-35 and the F-22, you don’t have to do that because you don’t these explosive cartridges.  You’re just using pneumatic air; bleed air to get the job done.

It’s one of those elements that have been designed in the airplane to save hours, save time, save mobility footprint.

It’s a small thing, but these are the kind of things that add up across the board.  Such items add onto the logistics footprint that you have to accommodate.

For a look at the approach of the F-35 to working with current weapons see