Modern warfare is waged largely on the electromagnetic spectrum. Although bombs and missiles get the headlines, they are just the kinetic step in a “kill chain” that relies heavily on electronic sensors and computers to detect, track, prioritize and target enemy assets. If the enemy is technologically advanced, it will be using its own array of electronic devices to deceive, disrupt or destroy attacking forces. These defensive measures will typically include methods for interfering with the electronic signals that smart bombs depend on for accuracy. The struggle to control and exploit the electromagnetic spectrum makes today’s conflicts fundamentally different from those of the past. Although Sun Tzu understood 2000 years ago that success in war often depends on deception, the opportunities to confuse, disorient and demoralize adversaries have multiplied as the military enterprise came to depend so heavily on electronic tactics and tools. Electronic warfare thus is a central feature of military strategy for the foreseeable future. Which brings me to the Pentagon’s biggest weapons program, the F-35 fighter. Begun at the dawn of the new millennium two decades ago, the F-35 program is providing the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps with replacements for most of their Cold War tactical aircraft (nearly 300 have already been delivered). Three distinctly different variants of the plane will supply each service with performance features tailored to their unique requirements, in an exceptionally agile and versatile aircraft designed to be far more survivable than those that came before. If you have paid any attention to the F-35 program, then you know that stealth technology is critical to its survival in wartime. Stealth, also known as low-observable technology, enables the aircraft to avoid danger by minimizing features that can be detected using radars or heat-seeking sensors. For instance, radar signals are either deflected by the fighter’s shape or absorbed by its materials, so little energy returns to the radar that can be used to track the plane. The F-35 has an integrated stealth design, meaning it not only minimizes “signatures” in the microwave segment of the spectrum used by radar, but also the infrared and visible-light segments exploited by electro-optical sensors. Emissions from on-board communications equipment are also managed to leave enemies with few options for finding the fighter. So while a long-wavelength search radar might occasionally detect a distant F-35, there will usually be no way of tracking or targeting it. This is the main reason why F-35s are achieving kill ratios of 20-to-1 in simulated combat against adversary aircraft. As one pilot of an adversary fighter put it, “We just can’t see them like they can see us. It can feel like you are out there with a blindfold on trying to find someone in a huge space.” This state of being nearly defenseless harkens back to pre-radar days, when a very worried Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin warned the British Parliament that “the bomber will always get through.” But there is more to F-35 survivability than stealth. All three variants of the fighter are equipped with a highly automated electronic-warfare system that disrupts and deceives enemy electronic capabilities — not just radars, but heat-seeking missiles, communications networks and navigation signals. The combination of this advanced electronic-warfare system with F-35 stealth, speed, agility and weapons assures the U.S. and its allies will have unfettered access to hostile air space through mid-century, and probably beyond. The F-35’s electronic-warfare system is built by BAE Systems, Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of Britain’s biggest defense contractor. Like F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems is a longtime contributor to my think tank and consulting client. But the company is so reserved in discussing features of the system that I didn’t bother to solicit comments for this story. Fortunately, there are a few other sources one can turn to for a general grasp of how effectively F-35 maneuvers in the electromagnetic realm.
To summarize, the F-35 is essentially
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