Lightning lethality - F-35 weapons

In December one of Australia’s two F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters notched up an important milestone with the first release of a Paveway II Laser Guided Bomb (LGB). 

Nigel Pittaway | Melbourne

The event occurred during a sortie over the Barry M. Goldwater Range (BMGR) in the US on December 14 and involved a 500lb GBU-12 weapon, which has been in service on other RAAF platforms for several years. However the occasion was significant in the fact that it marked certification of the first in a series of weapons to be cleared on the F-35A in the lead up to Australian Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in late 2020.

The GBU-12 is so far the only air to ground weapon to be certified for use on the F-35, across all nations. Together with the Raytheon AIM-120C-7 Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile (AMRAAM) beyond visual range weapon, the GBU-12 forms the baseline suite specified by both the US Marine Corps (F-35B) and US Air Force (F-35A) for their IOC milestones, which occurred in July 2015 and August 2016 respectively. This suite confers the F-35 with a limited air to air and air to ground weapons capability from the outset.

Although the deployment of the GBU-12 in December was a first for Australia, both this weapon and AMRAAM have been launched on numerous occasions during the international JSF test program.

Both weapons are able to be carried in the F-35’s weapons bay – a requirement if the stealthy characteristics of the aircraft are to be maintained, and it is the dimensions of the bay which will determine which weapons will be integrated with the jet in future times.

The F-35A also has an internal GAU-22/A 25mm Gatling gun, manufactured by General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems and with 182 rounds of ammunition.

The GBU-12 and earlier AIM-120C-7 variant of the AMRAAM are weapons capabilities hosted within the current ‘Block 3I’ (Initial) software build. This baseline suite will be further expanded to include other laser and GPS-guided weapons, together with a later version of AMRAAM and the Raytheon AIM-9X-2 within visual range missile, when the ‘Block 3F’ (Final) software upgrade is introduced to service in 2018 or thereabouts.

Australian IOC requires this expanded range of weapons, but Stephen McDonald, Project Director for F-35 Missions Systems at Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG), says all have already successfully been deployed during the F-35 test program and does not see any risk in this respect.

“The 3F software is being tested quite strongly right now,” he said to ADM. “That will be delivered in 2018 and we don’t go to IOC until the end of 2020, so we’ve got two years’ float and all systems are go.”


IOC and beyond


When Australian IOC is eventually achieved, the F-35 weapons suite will include the AIM-120D variant of AMRAAM, AIM-9X Block II, GBU-12 and two variants of the 1,000 lb GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM).

These weapons are initially being delivered under the aegis of Air 6000 Phases 2A/B, which is acquiring sufficient numbers of weapons and expendable countermeasures to support Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E), together with five years of sustainment. bWar stocks of the weapons and countermeasures will be acquired under Air 6000 Phase 3 (air to ground) and Phase 5 (air to air).

The AIM-120D is the latest AMRAAM variant, which offers increased range, GPS-guided navigation and a two-way data link over the earlier AIM-120C-7.

The AIM-9X-2 (Block II) is a within visual range infra-red (IR) weapon which has updated electronics’ systems and a new data link, which allows a Lock-On After Launch (LOAL) capability that the earlier variant does not currently boast.

RAAF Hornets and Super Hornets currently use the C-7 version of AMRAAM and the earlier version of AIM-9X is the baseline WVR weapon aboard Australia’s Super Hornets and Growlers. Both AIM-120D and AIM-9X-2 are already on order for the Hornet, Super Hornet and Growler.

Two variants of the GBU-31 JDAM will be acquired; the standard Mk.84, and the BLU-109/B, which has a penetrator warhead, and also the GBU-39 250lb Small Diameter Bomb (SDB). Australia and Norway are also jointly funding the development of Nammo’s APEX (Armour Piercing EXplosive) 25mm rounds for the internal gun.

One of the criticisms often levelled at the F-35 is that it doesn’t have the ability to engage moving targets. A basic moving target capability is actually provided by the laser-guided GBU-12, in conjunction with the aircraft’s Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS), and Stephen McDonald said this will be further enhanced in the future with the acquisition of the GBU-54 Laser JDAM.

“The GBU-54 is a laser and GPS guided weapon which is capable of engaging high-speed ground targets and the latest version of the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB-II), which is a fully-networked weapon with a tri-mode seeker that has outstanding capability against these types of targets, as well as others,” he explained. “Together with an EOTS upgrade scheduled in 2022, they will make targeting moving vehicles more automated.”


Maritime strike weapon


Australia and other JSF partners, such as Norway and Turkey, also have a requirement for a maritime strike weapon, which can be carried within the F-35’s weapons bay, and a future software block will address this current shortcoming in the early part of the next decade.

In Australia this capability will be acquired under Air 3023 Phase 1, which was flagged in the recent Defence Portfolio Budget Statement to achieve Second Pass approval in the 2017-18 financial year, but will need to wait for the incorporation of software Block 4.2, which is due for release in the 2022/23 timeframe.

At the 2015 Avalon Air Show, then-Defence Minister Kevin Andrews announced that Australia would co-operate with the Norwegian Ministry of Defence to develop Kongsberg’s Joint strike Missile (JSM) as a possible solution to the requirement.

Local Defence industry received a welcome boost with the agreement, with BAE Systems Australia tasked by the Australian Government to develop a passive radio frequency (RF) sensor for JSM, complementing the weapons’ current IR seeker.

Competing with Kongsberg/BAE for the maritime strike requirement is Turkey’s Roketsan, which signed an agreement with Lockheed Martin in September 2015 to co-operate on the development of the company’s SOM-J stand –off cruise missile.


Future Capabilities


Aside from the maritime strike weapon (which was of no interest to the US and therefore left for international partners to develop further down the track) all the F-35 weapons currently on the roadmap are US-standard weapons, chosen initially at least to reduce program risk.

The UK however has sovereign weapons requirements which will be enabled by future software blocks which may well offer alternatives to Australia from the middle of next decade.

The first to be integrated with the JSF is MBDA ASRAAM (Advanced Short Range Air to Air Missile), which was successfully test fired from an F-35B in March. ASRAAM is no stranger to the RAAF, having been the mainstay WVR weapon on the ‘Classic’ Hornet for many years.

ASRAAM has recently received a technology refresh, particularly in terms of the seeker, to keep it viable until the 2040 timeframe and MBDA literature claims the weapon has70 per cent more propellant than its US rival, conferring greater range and speed and agility.

F-35 with full weapons load on display. Credit: Lockheed MArtin

Credit: Lockheed Martin

The UK has also specified MBDA’s Meteor as its BVR weapon of choice, which will be integrated with Block 4 software. Meteor has recently been declared operational with the Swedish Air Force’s Gripen and will also be integrated with the RAF’s Typhoons and France’s Rafale fighters. It is earning a reputation for a weapon which cannot be outrun, given its unique throttleable ram jet propulsion system which ensures maximum power when needed, namely in the endgame.

“Not only does Meteor have a long range, but it still has energy at that range and it is highly manoeuvrable,” Andy Watson, managing director MBDA Australia explained to ADM. “Depending on the engagement geometry it has two or three times the ‘no escape’ zone of current BVR weapons. It offers a massive step change in missile performance at range.”

The third weapon specified by the UK is also an MBDA weapon, in this instance the air to ground SPEAR. This long-range weapon featuring a multi-mode seeker, is designed to meet the threats of the future battlespace, including the ability to engage high end enemy Air Defence Systems as well as a range of static and fast moving land and sea targets.

“I sense a definite desire within Defence to step-up F-35 weapons capability from the mid-2020’s and that’s really the area we’re interested in,” Watson said.

This article first appeared in the July 2017 edition of ADM.

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