• A USAF KC-10 Extender refuels an F-35A fitted with external missiles on the day of the strike.
    A USAF KC-10 Extender refuels an F-35A fitted with external missiles on the day of the strike. USAF

Lockheed Martin has developed a new weapons rack for US Air Force F-35As and US Navy F-35Cs that allows the aircraft to carry two additional AIM-120 air-to-air missiles.

The ‘Sidekick’ rack replaces the two existing racks inside the F-35 variants, bringing the total number of missiles carried per plane to six. The two new internal weapons add weight but do not compromise the stealth of the aircraft, unlike extra missiles that the F-35 can currently carry on external mounts.

Test pilot Tony Wilson told US media that the Sidekick was developed within Lockheed Martin. It is not compatible with the vertical take-off F-35B variant operated by the US Marine Corps.

The news came as the USAF used F-35As in combat for the first time, dropping a Joint Direct Attack Munition on an entrenched ‘Islamic State’ tunnel network and weapons cache in Iraq’s Hamrin Mountains.

“This jet is smarter, a lot smarter, and so it can do more, and it helps you out more when loading munitions,” Staff Sgt Karl Tesch, 380th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons technician, observed.

The F-35As involved in the strike had missiles mounted on their wingtips.

The relatively low number of missiles carried on F-35 variants forms part of a debate over whether the ADF has the logistical capacity to replenish signature platforms.

According to Lieutenant Colonel David Beaumont of Army’s School of Logistics, the issue stems from a lack of planning for sustainment operations in a conflict with a near-peer adversary.

“We have to start questioning whether our big capabilities – F-35s and others - can endure on a battlefield where our friends are far away,” LTCOL Beaumont told an audience at a recent Sir Richard Williams Foundation seminar.

“Logistics constraints and strengths can determine the form and means of operations. As we seek to answer the question of what we can achieve on our own, concerns about logistics must be front and centre.”

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