Targeting F-35 JSF –– Indian Navy’s Masterstroke

By Sayan Majumdar


New Delhi, 16 July 2005


F-35 JSF

In a significant move the Indian Navy categorically stated its preference for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 JSF (Joint Strike Fighter) over Boeing’s F/A-18E/F ‘Super Hornet’ offered by the United States. Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash, himself a distinguished naval fighter pilot, expressed as much while speaking to reporters after commissioning INS Beas, a Brahmaputra Class Guided Missile armed Helicopter carrying Frigate (FFGH) at the Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Ltd, Kolkata on July 11, 2005.

The CNS cited the inherent incompatibility of the Super Hornet with the aircraft carriers of the Indian Navy, which incorporate the concept of Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR), in absence of the steam catapults necessary for the Super Hornets for take-off. On the other hand, the Indian aircraft carriers utilise the “ski-jump” that forms an integral part of the STOBAR operations. The Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) version of the F-35B being developed for United States Marine Corps (USMC) can utilise the ski-jump for take-off and would be more suitable for the Indian Navy.

If the F-35 enters service with Indian Navy the CNS is perhaps well aware of the “technological leap” that the IN and Indian aerospace industry would obtain, along with transfer of technology for license manufacture. Incidentally, the top brass of the US Aerospace Giant Lockheed Martin had expressed a wish to see the F-35 flying in Indian Air Force (IAF) colours –– indeed during Aero India 2005 the Company had depicted F-35 models in IAF colours as a promotional measure. Alongside other variants, the F-35B STOVL variant is projected to be developed into an advanced attack aircraft with outstanding Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) capability, to be operated from multiple types of naval platforms ranging from medium attack carriers, British Invincible Class STOVL carriers, Helicopter carrying Landing Platforms (LPH) and even from forward battlefield areas or further interior of beachheads.

The Lockheed-Martin F-35 resembles a single-engine version of the same company's F/A-22 Raptor, retaining a high degree of stealthy contouring. The F-35B STOVL version under development features a vertically mounted "lift fan" behind the cockpit, driven by a shaft off the Pratt & Whitney F119 engine, with a three bearing swivelling vectored exhaust nozzle and two exhaust ducts, extending from each side of the engine to exit in the bottom of the wings for roll control. The lift fan approach minimises hot exhaust ingestion back into the engine. Infra Red (IR) signature also remains “under control”. The engine intake ducting is arranged in a "serpentine" fashion to eliminate radar reflections from the compressor blades. However production aircraft will be powered by either the F135 or the F136 turbofan being developed by General Electric and Rolls Royce.

The F-35 is designed to operate strictly with internal weapons during initial phases of an air campaign in "first day stealth" mode to perform stealthy strikes on the enemy air defence network including ground-based radar, Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) launchers and their command & control nodes in SEAD role and to strike at heavily defended targets. In such mode, weapons are restricted in two parallel internal bays each with two hard-points located in front of the landing gear. Prominent weapons to be carried internally include Global Positioning System (GPS)-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW), Paveway II Laser Guided Bombs (LBG) and AIM-120C AMRAAM Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM). Internal JDAM carrying capability of F-35B STOVL is limited two 450-kg loads. However the point of concern is the possible restriction of weapon loads in internal bays to US made weapons only. The Indian Navy will do well to clarify this particular aspect.

In later phases of a conflict, with enemy air defence network sufficiently shattered, heavier external loads like Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) and Storm Shadow cruise missile may be carried compromising “stealth” attributes to a certain degree. For further enhancement of its impressive range, thanks to the efficient engines, the F-35B has a retractable refuelling probe on the right side of the nose for in-flight refuelling.

For IN the “prize catch” will be the F-35’s sensors and the heart of it is the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, based on the AN/APG-77 AESA set developed for the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. The AESA set consists of an array of Transmitter-Receiver (T/R) modules linked by high-speed processors. Different T/R modules in the array can be allocated to different tasks providing wide range of functions, thus acting as a multimode radar, active jamming system, passive electronic defense system, and communications system. The system generates signals over a wide range of frequencies and pulse patterns in an unpredictable fashion to ensure Low Probability of Intercept (LPI), successfully “fooling“ enemy Radar Warning Receivers (RWR).

The AN/APG-81 uses advanced technology compared to the F-22's AN/APG-77, but airframe constraints mean that it has fewer T/R modules, thus limiting its range to 165 km. The radar system will also incorporate the agile beam steering capabilities developed for the APG-77. Since US media reports indicate Bush administration’s clearance for possible transfer of sensitive radar technology like Raytheon AN/APG-79 AESA radar of the Super Hornet to India, diplomatic bargaining to secure the AN/APG-81 AESA radar may well bear fruit. Higher echelons of present US administration have repeatedly expressed their desire to witness the emergence of India into a robust continental military power.

A Lockheed Martin Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) embedded under the F-35’s nose will provide long-range detection and precision targeting, along with the Northrop Grumman DAS (Distributed Aperture System) thermal imaging system. EOTS will be based on the Sniper XL pod developed for the F-16, which incorporates a “third generation” Mid-Wave Forward Looking Infra Red (MWFLIR) with possibly staring focal plane technology, dual mode laser, CCD TV, laser spot tracker and laser marker. Interestingly, EOTS is not turret-mounted, but has a wide aperture that is blended into the aircraft's nose contours, covered by a window that is opaque to radar. On their part, DAS sensors fitted at multiple locations on the aircraft consist of multiple infrared cameras providing full-sphere 360-degrees coverage using advanced signal conditioning algorithms. The DAS provides navigation, missile warning and Infra Red Search & Track (IRST) as well as situational awareness.

Indo–US cooperation is at an all time high after “9/11” with all branches of the Armed Forces of both the nations striving hard to attain inter-operability and joint-cooperation on a grand scale. The Indian Navy was perhaps the first to adapt radically to the changed circumstances, as it was the only service that has long maintained “active foreign military links” by conducting extensive maritime exercises with foreign navies. It was also becoming apparent that it is in the naval sphere where active Indo-US military cooperation robustly lies in keeping Sea Lines Of Communication (SLOC) open in vast stretches of the Indian Ocean. Already the United States plans to have an Indian Navy official on the staff of the United States Pacific Command acting as liaison officer, to bring in more cooperation and understanding between the two armed forces in fighting global terror, as disclosed a few months ago by Admiral William Fallon, Commander of the United States Pacific Command. In this respect Admiral Fallon stated that he had held discussions on this issue with Indian Navy’s Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Arun Prakash during his visit to Washington.

Under such a backdrop the Indian Navy may gradually induct a considerable number of United States origin military equipment and systems as a common inventory will be highly desirable for both the nations in terms of joint-exercises and inter-operability. Certain critical naval systems are already on offer that range from P-3C Orion Long Range Maritime Patrol (LRMP) platforms, ship-borne SH-60 Sea Hawk Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopters to second-hand yet capable Spruance Class Guided missile armed Destroyers (DDG) and Oliver Hazard Perry Class Guided missile armed Frigates (FFG).

Yet how United States reacts to the bold assertion of Admiral Arun Prakash in “selecting” the fifth-generation F-35 JSF needs to be seen. Certainly the US is well aware of the fact that in terms of possession of certain military hardware and operating philosophy and practice India has touched the developed world and is no longer regarded as a third-world military power

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