Here Are All the F-35's New Upgrades | World Defense

Here Are All the F-35's New Upgrades


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Nov 17, 2017
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Here Are All the F-35's New Upgrades
Longer range, the ability to control drone swarms, and tons of secret stuff will go into the next version of the fighter.
By Kyle Mizokami
Jun 18, 2019


The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is set to receive a series of upgrades designed to keep the jet ahead of the emerging fifth-generation pack. Known as Block 4, the upgrades include the ability to control drones and robotic wingmen, more fuel tanks to extend range, an anti-ground collision system, and classified upgrades we couldn’t even guess.

The F-35 was conceived in the late 1990s and has spent more than two decades in development. Although only recently operational in the U.S. military, it was designed at a time when some technologies, including robotics, had yet to become the big deal they are today. The armed services and the allies that have committed to ordering the F-35 are eager to integrate that new tech into their existing and future aircraft.


F-35 on display at the 2019 Paris Air Show.
Anadolu AgencyGetty Images

Block 4 will incorporate 53 new technologies, features largely aimed at countering peer and near-peer competitors like Russia and China. As Air Force magazine writes, “None of these upgrades will change the aircraft’s outer appearance, or ‘mold line.’ Instead, they are primarily new or enhanced features executed in software, which will be rolled out in stages, with updates every April and October starting in 2019 and continuing through at least 2024.” Block 4 will be 80 percent new software and 20 percent new hardware.

In advance of Block 4, most existing F-35s are getting new hardware, including new cockpit displays, more system memory, and faster processors, in a package called Technology Refresh 3.

Lockheed Martin F-35 VP Greg Ulmer shows some details on Block 4 roadmap at #PAS19. Includes unmanned teaming and missile defense capability. We reported addition of 600-gal. external fuel tanks last week.
— Steve Trimble (@TheDEWLine) June 17, 2019

Block 4 breaks down into the following improvements:

* New weapons. Block 4 will support the Stormbreaker smart glide bomb (formerly known as Small Diameter Bomb II) and allied weapons such as the UK’s ASRAAM and Meteor missiles, Turkey and Lockheed Martin’s Standoff Missile (SOM-J), and the Kongsberg/Raytheon Joint Strike Missile, a new missile capable of land attack and anti-ship missions.

* Electronic warfare and communications updates. The F-35 will receive 11 radar and electro-optical updates and 13 electronic warfare updates, allowing the jet to detect enemies sooner and jam them.

* Ground control collision avoidance system (GCAS). Pilot disorientation is a serious issue in modern combat aircraft. Earlier this year, a F-35 was lost after Major Akinori Hosomi, an experienced pilot with the Japan Air Self Defense Force, lost situational awareness and flew his aircraft into the Pacific Ocean. GCAS will use the aircraft’s onboard sensors to detect when the aircraft is on a dangerous path to crashing. The system will warn the pilot and, if the warnings aren’t heeded, will actually take control of the aircraft and place it on a safe flight path. GCAS would have saved the pilot and aircraft in the April 2019 incident.

* Extended fuel tanks. The F-35’s range has come into criticism in recent years, as the U.S. fighter fleet faces the prospect of long-range combat against other major powers. Block 4 would add an additional 600 gallons of fuel carried in external fuel tanks. That isn't ideal, as even minor changes to the external appearance of the F-35 will compromise the airplane’s carefully crafted anti-radar profile, but short of magically finding room inside the plane for more fuel, it's pretty much the only solution to the range problem.

* Unmanned teaming. The U.S. Air Force, and undoubtedly other air forces, are looking into the idea of pairing F-35s with unmanned aircraft to handle complex threat environments. Drones like the XQ-58 Valkyrie, which the USAF wants to buy to experiment with, could probe enemy defenses, carry jammers, and carry out diversions to allow the manned to get close enough to the target to safely attack it. Such use of drones could dramatically increase the effectiveness of a F-35 fighter without teaming it with other, equally expensive F-35s.

* Other upgrades. According to a slide shared by Aviation Week & Space Technology's Stephen Trimble from the Paris Air Show, other system upgrades include an increased ability to help shoot down ballistic missiles, probably including using the Distributed Aperture System of infrared cameras to detect the heat plume of a missile taking off. The F-35 will also get open architecture improvements, likely to help speed the integration of future upgrades, the ability to work alongside naval and ground units, and other classified improvements.

Finally, Block 4 will apparently include classified improvements from Lockheed Martin’s famous “Skunk Works,” responsible for such aircraft as the SR-71 Blackbird and U-2. Exactly what those improvements are remains to be seen, but they could include literally anything from jam-proof communications to laying the groundwork for adding a laser weapon to the F-35.