As multinational F-35 fighter acquisition explodes across Europe and hundreds of new F-35s slowly roll onto military bases, many are likely to wonder if the famed fighter should be considered the “best” fighter of the world.
Dubbed a “flying computer” and known for its “sensor fusion,” range, and drone-like surveillance technology, the F-35 has no equivalent. Has it?
There is little doubt that the Russian Su-57 and the Chinese J-20 and J-31 reflect great power efforts to match or “surpass” the American F-35. But, the F-35 has several features that its 5th-generation jet competitors must also have.
The F-35 has three distinct variations, and this is the aircraft’s first and most obvious aspect that will be challenging to imitate.
Currently, it does not appear that any rival country has a 5th generation of vertical take-off and landing aircraft similar to the F-35B, capable of operating from smaller-deck amphibious assault ships.
Furthermore, it is also unclear if any rival country has a carrier-launched equivalent to the F-35C. Of course, the Chinese are designing the J-31 for carrier launching, but it is unclear how combat-ready it is.
Beyond mere configuration, several key technology attributes that rival 5th-gen offerings may struggle to replicate, such as sensor range and fidelity, AI-based computing, mission data files from the threat library, flight automation, weapons envelope, manned-unmanned teaming, and fleet-wide data link network.
The F-35’s sensors can reach unprecedented distances, which is one of the most evident and perhaps most effective advantages it has in wargaming because of the range and quality of its targets and sensors.
Live-fire exercises like the Air Force Red Flag and F-35 war games have demonstrated the F-35’s ability to see and kill big adversary jet groups from undetectable distances.
In this type of scenario, shown in various war games, a single F-35 can see, identify, and destroy large numbers of enemy aircraft without being in the line of fire.
This means that the Distributed Aperture System, a camera with 360-degree viewing sensors around the fuselage, along with long-range electro-optical targeting technology, are able to see enemy threats, quickly identify them by bouncing them off a library of known threat computer data called Mission Data Files, and use precision-guided long-range air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons to destroy enemies while operating at safe distances themselves.
This is all made possible by so-called “sensor fusion,” a term that describes sensor data integration in which relevant and time-sensitive details from disparate sensor streams are integrated into a single, easy-to-use data screen. for the pilots.
This dramatically simplifies processes, and as AI-based computing and data processing continue to advance, it will soon be much quicker and more accurate in its analysis and coverage of data.
This “sensor fusion” computing, which was really dreamed of quite some time ago, is widely regarded as one of the first iterations of AI data processing; it is currently included in the vast majority of US military weapons systems and enables paradigm-shifting layers of multi-domain networking.
The F-35’s superiority over the Chinese J-20 and the Russian Su-57 would be greatly diminished if neither aircraft possessed targeting sensors or a computer system on par with the F-35’s.
Simply said, the most likely to succeed is the aircraft that can complete the OODA (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action) loop and destroy the opponent faster than it can.
To achieve this goal, the F-35 relies on cutting-edge detection, computer processing, data analysis, and integration capabilities, which may or may not be matched by adversarial 5th-generation aircraft.
Adversaries in the skies
The J-20 operates with a “bomb truck”-capable of carrying more munitions than an F-35 in a single mission, as it can take off with 27,998 pounds of internal and external munitions compared to the F-35.
35 while in beast mode, capable of transporting 18,000 pounds of armaments. However, a complete complement of internal and exterior armament degrades stealth by emitting a larger and more accurate radar return signal to enemy air defenses.
A real margin of difference when it comes to superiority probably lies in the range and accuracy of their targeting and mission systems. The F-35 is constructed in a stealthy configuration and uses a unique blend of composite materials and, presumably, radar-absorbing elements that are difficult to detach. Thus its stealth properties are an additional crucial consideration.
Externally, the J-31, J-20, and Su-57 look stealthy, but it’s much harder to tell whether or not their thermal signature and cladding are on par with the F-35’s.
Critical roles in warfare include data interface, weapon range, and “guiding” technology, all of which should be compared. For instance, the F-35 can now “off-boresight” fire the AIM-9X, meaning that it may alter its trajectory in midair to hit previously inaccessible targets behind or to the flanks of the plane.
The F-35’s weapons have reached new levels of precision, range, and accuracy thanks to a helmet-mounted targeting system that can now work at night. Russian and Chinese jets may or may not be able to mimic the F-35A’s nuclear capability, as it will fly with the B-61 Mod 12.
If an F-35 could find a Chinese J-20 behind it, identify it, and fire AIM-9X air-to-air course correction missiles at it from a safe distance, the Chinese plane might not be capable of surviving.
Most of these factors depend on real-time “networking” of combined force data. With a data link, all F-35s, including those of allies and recent buyers like Switzerland, Germany, Finland, and others, can immediately and securely communicate data across vast international formations.
The MADL data link is made with technical interfaces so that all versions of the F-35 from all countries can connect easily and share intelligence data, details about threats, or details about where to shoot. Of course, this opens up more operational options since countries that use the F-35 have a huge fleet size advantage.
All F-35 variants from all nations can easily connect with each other via the MADL data link, sharing intelligence data, threat specifics, or targeting information. Because countries with F-35 fleets have such a large advantage over those without, this naturally increases operational flexibility.
It is uncertain if China and Russia’s manned-unmanned aerial equipment applications can compete with the F-35’s networking, but news reports from both countries suggest they are trying in addition to drone management.
The F-35 and the 6th Generation fly together
Senior Pentagon officials reveal that the 6th generation stealth fighter, already “in flight,” will be a high-speed and stealth “family of systems,” more likely to replace the F-22 than an F-35, despite being largely “black” and unseen. The F-35 is a multi-role fighter focusing on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), long-range targeting, and various networking technologies.
However, the Pentagon has long laid out an ambitious plan for continued modernization of the F-35.
The majority of innovative advancements are projected to occur in computing, mission systems, weapons guidance, targeting, and AI-based data processing, allowing the 5th-generation aircraft to transform into a nearly new aircraft without requiring any exterior modifications.
Clearly, new radar-absorbent materials, coatings, and even thermal management technologies are likely to develop, but the airframe core may remain mostly unchanged, consistent with the Pentagon’s aim to fly the F-35 through the 2070s.
This is noteworthy since the F-35 is anticipated to fly alongside and support sixth-generation NGAD aircraft for decades.