A press release by Northrup Grumman gives you an idea:
Sensors designed for the U.S. Air Force’s F-35 aircraft monitored five NASA sounding rocket launches that took place in rapid succession this past spring, demonstrating the next-generation fighter’s ballistic missile detection, tracking and targeting capability, according to a Northrop Grumman press release.
The suborbital rockets, launched March 27 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, were detected and tracked simultaneously by the electro-optical distributed aperture system (DAS) and electronically scanned radar array sensors, the press release said. Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems of Linthicum, Md., designed both sensor suites for the F-35, which is built by Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md.
In short and in part, it is the F-35’s sensor suite and sensor fusion that make it unlike any other aircraft. Whereas before, fusion took place in the pilot’s head as he or she took in all the data provided by outside sensors, in the case of the F-35, the aircraft is doing that fusion leaving the pilot to concentrate on tactics.
A good primer on the difference the sensor suite will make can be found in this short Northrup Grumman film:
Obviously part of the problem in discussing these innovative new systems is the secrecy involved. Lockheed Martin VP Steve O’Bryan discussed that recently:
“As you can probably imagine, it’s very difficult for me to get an unclassified public release on the electronic warfare system, on the electronic attack, or other things, but I’ve tried to get as much as I possibly can,” O’Bryan said. He showed video that came from the F-35’s Distributed Aperture System and its Electro-Optical Targeting System, as well as a sensor picture from its synthetic aperture radar.
The F-35’s sensors and targeting capabilities are world-beating, Lockheed says, and O’Bryan gave one example: “What’s unique about the F-35 is the resolution that I can’t talk about, but what it enables is auto target recognition and auto target locating. So you get the ability to see and classify tanks, [armored personnel carriers], double-digit [surface-to-air missile] launchers that are unique. No other airplane has that capability. It’s able to do it through the weather and because of the computer power of the F-35 it is something unique to the F-35.”
In addition to its radar and laser targeting, the jet has six mid-wave infrared cameras that feed video right into the pilot’s helmet, enabling her to look anywhere, including through the floor of the airplane. The IR video is incredibly detailed, O’Bryan boasted. He showed video of an F-16 from the DAS perspective, and pointed out that even though it was not a conventional TV image, you could see the rivets on the fuselage and even the tail markings that showed the Viper was from Edwards AFB, Calif.
These capabilities are becoming a reality as the press release from Northrup Grumman points out.
The DAS, a suite of six infrared cameras providing a 360-degree spherical view from the aircraft, autonomously detected and tracked all five rockets through second-stage burnout, the press release said. The radar sensor was able to detect and track the rockets independently but also based on cuing data from the DAS camera suite, which enabled detection at a greater range, the release said.
The sensors used in the demonstration were carried not by an F-35 but aboard Northrop Grumman’s BAC1-11 testbed aircraft, the company said. Only minor modifications to the sensor software were necessary, the press release said.
“Since DAS is always staring simultaneously in every direction, an operator does not have to point the sensor in the direction of a target to gain a track,” Jeff Leavitt, vice president of Northrop Grumman’s combat avionic systems business unit, said in a prepared statement. “The F-35 pilot could continue the primary mission while the sensors automatically observe ballistic missile threats.”
These are the systems that will define the F-35 as the cutting edge fighter for the next generation. As you can see, even in unclassified releases, the capabilities announced and being tested will provide the aircraft significant advantages over the current legacy fleet.