One main part of the F-35’s mission is to conduct operations in hostile territory, or what military officials call an anti-access airspace denial environment, and survive whatever surface-to-air missiles or air-to-air missiles might await it. That requires stealth – the F-35 even carries its weapons internally to preserve its stealth advantage – and the ability to defeat adversaries beyond visual range. And that’s where the AMRAAM missile comes in.
A pilot flying an AMRAAM-equipped F-35 can detect, target and engage enemy aircraft at distances well beyond visual range. The missile has a semi-active radar that allows pilots to engage enemy aircraft at extreme ranges and get away before they are threatened – an advantage known as “launch and leave capability.” That, coupled with the plane’s stealthy features and advanced sensor suite, means the F-35 can defeat enemy aircraft without ever being detected.
An upgrade called F3R, or Form, Fit Function Refresh, will bring even more capability to the missile through increased range and enhanced performance against advanced threats.
“The F-35 paired with the AMRAAM preserves our first-launch opportunity against advanced threats,” Norman said. “Before they even have a track on our aircraft, our F-35 pilots are able to engage an adversary with AMRAAM and leave. This is the exact advantage our pilots need in combat and the exact capability the AMRAAM delivers.”
Another of the F-35’s missiles is the Raytheon AIM-9X Sidewinder, a shorter-range air-to-air missile that uses infrared instead of radar to detect, track and guide to a target. That helps the plane stay stealthy; fighter jets typically can sense when they’re being targeted by radar, and when they do, they alert their pilots. But with infrared targeting, there’s no such warning.
“As a fighter, if I can passively track and target and not give an adversary warning I’m there, and still employ ordnance, then I have a significant offensive advantage,” said Norman, a former F-16 pilot.
As for ground strikes, the F-35 will carry the StormBreaker smart weapon, a gliding munition with a seeker that works three different ways – millimeter-wave, which allows it to find targets in darkness and in any weather; infrared, which helps discriminate between targets, and semi-active laser, meaning it will follow the direction of a laser designator operated either from the air or on the ground.
StormBreaker is the U.S. Air Force’s first network-enabled weapon, meaning control can be transferred after launch to another fighter jet or to ground forces, which can then provide new targeting data in real time. It also has greater range than older munitions – about 40 miles – meaning an F-35 can zoom out, take a wide field of view and engage several targets at the same time.
The fighter jet also carries the Paveway laser-guided bomb, an air-to-ground precision guided munition that fulfills another of the F-35’s missions: close air support for ground forces.
One other key to the F-35’s strike capability: sometimes, it doesn’t even launch anything. The plane’s suite of radar, sensors and targeting systems essentially make it a flying sensor and battle manager, and it has even shown in tests that it can provide targeting data and guide a ground-launched missile against threats over the horizon.