JSF Honchos Talk Program Future

Feb 13, 2009
By David A. Fulghum

The days of a single U.S. aircraft “kicking down the door” in a military attack appear to be history and not even the largest defense acquisition ever planned is looking to take on the responsibility, according to the top two generals in charge of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

Future aerial battlefields will be so dynamic and complex — with S-300, S-400 and other advanced, networked anti-aircraft systems — that the strike force will have to be an even more dynamic and complex force. That leads to the current efforts to better link the country’s F-22s, B-2s, F-35s and, possibly, unmanned combat aircraft, into a single stealth fleet.

“I do believe that when you are attacking an anti-access area, you will have all kinds of forces coming from all directions and not just F-22s all by themselves,” says U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Davis, the JSF’s program executive officer. “Desert Storm is probably the last time that you’ll see something quite of the nature of sending the F-117s in all by themselves.”

Davis and the deputy JSF program officer, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. David Heinz, recently sat down with Aviation Week in a roundtable discussion at the JSF Joint Program Office outside Washington. Davis will turn over the program, a massive effort involving three U.S. military departments and nine partner nations, to Heinz in the coming months. Together, they discussed the JSF’s development and challenges.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about [communications] links,” according to Davis. “That discussion is nowhere near done. There’s also a lot more discussion on how to link [non-stealth] F/A-18E/F, EA-18G, F-16 and F-15s. There’s a long way to go to understand how the elements of the air wing of the future will work together.”

The Link 16 system was being examined for air-to-air communications, but its limited bandwidth was soon recognized as an issue.

As operators start understanding what intelligence and targeting data they can get from the F-35, “pretty soon there’s no bandwidth left on Link 16,” Heinz says.

“We need to come up with who needs it, when, why and does it need to be raw data or can it be some fusion of data,” the Marine says. “The dialogue is getting better, but it will still be happening five years from now as we migrate through UAVs and other platforms.”

As for the Medium Altitude Data Link (MADL), it solves the bandwidth communications problems for F-22s, F-35s and B-2s — but it does not help them communicate with legacy, non-stealthy platforms.

In addition, “We know that we want to share targeting, data, threat or electronic warfare information with or from a UAV,” Davis says. “The issue is not if we can do it. We’ve got the software. But it is a pretty big gorilla in terms of the number of aircraft that will have the capability. You’ve got to find the message and determine what it says. How do I want it to go from node to node? They haven’t solved it, but it has highlighted the problems with a future networking system.”

The F-35 program’s Block 2.0 aircraft will be the first version that offers connectivity between stealth airplanes. The plan is to increase messaging capability and data flow until Block 3, the final configuration with full MADL capability, according to Davis.

Photo: DOD

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