In what was described as a major milestone for the military’s new integrated battle concept, two F-35s were integrated into the Army’s missile defense system to be used as sensors to detect and track threats during testing over the New Mexico desert.
Lockheed Martin announced on Jan. 21 that the proof-of-concept test in December marked the first time F-35s were used as sensors during an Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS) live-fire test against multiple airborne targets.
The F-35, which was finally ready for deployment in 2015, provides bundles of next-generation capabilities so far unmatched by rivals. But the military planners aren’t just looking for one-man shows: they want weapons systems to work as a cast.
The first F-35 prototype flew back in 2000 when China was a small blip on the strategists’ radars. With China now spending over a dozen times more on defense, the U.S. military is now revamping for renewed great power competition with Russia and China, as demanded by the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
Strategic solutions have emphasized the need for next-generation capabilities, but a key theme is greater integration of weapons systems across the different forces to crack open the anti-aircraft systems and long-range missile shields thrown up by adversaries.
The Army calls its strategic solution “Multi-Domain Operations.”
“The F-35’s advanced sensors and connectivity enable it to gather, analyze and seamlessly share critical information with the joint fighting force to lead the multi-domain battlespace,” said Greg Ulmer, Lockheed Martin vice president and general manager of the F-35 program, in a statement. “This test validated the F-35’s capability to serve as an airborne sensor and extend the range of critical Integrated Air and Missile Defense interceptors.”
Jay Pitman, vice president of Lower Tier Integrated Air and Missile Defense, said that the test was “a major milestone” for multi-domain operations. “This demonstrates a tremendous capability to defeat threats that are terrain masked or beyond ground-based sensor detection capabilities due to terrain and curvature of the earth,” he said.
Multi-Domain Operations is a central tenet of the Army’s Modernization strategy, published in 2018, and then updated last year.
“Multi-Domain Operations is the Army’s operating concept that was approved last year by the Chief of Staff in October and then published in the document in December,” Col. Eric Smith, the author of the 2019 Modernization Strategy, previously told The Epoch Times
“It describes how the Army is going to operate in the future in the five domains of land, sea, air, space, and cyber.”
Multi-Domain Operations aim to slice through what is known as a multi-layered standoff.
A multi-layered standoff can be visualized as concentric defensive rings radiating from an adversary’s position, Smith said, starting with the traditional artillery range to longer-range artillery on the inside, going outward to surface-to-surface, surface-to-air, and air-to-air missiles.
Reaching beyond those are extra layers: electronic warfare, unconventional warfare, cyber warfare, and information warfare.
With China and Russia having built up their militaries to target the U.S. systems of dominance, such as aircraft carriers and large amphibious ships, strategists are increasingly looking to the possibility of numerous distributed sensor and weapons systems, working in harmony but with no obvious Achilles heel.
The Navy is developing the concept of distributed operations, which means moving away from reliance on a few large ships, instead distributing the firepower and forces (lethality), as well as surveillance, across many more platforms, including unmanned ships, with no single point of failure.
The Marine Corps has outlined a parallel strategy, proposing to use smaller boats to allow marines to slip inside the anti-access bubble and onto Pacific islands where they can station missile batteries safe from China’s anti-ship missiles.
The integration of the F-35 with the Army’s missile defense is also a baby step toward the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s even more extreme vision of integrated battle, or Mosaic warfare, which requires the different systems on board various weapons systems to be able to communicate better with each other.