The F-35: A New Era of International Cooperation

F-35 Interoperability

The F-35 Lighting II represents a revolution in technology. With fully integrated avionics, advanced sensor fusion, stealth design and a dizzying array of interoperability and data-exchange capabilities, the F-35 is an evolution in air superiority. This multirole combat fighter is poised to reinvent air power for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members by strengthening international cooperation and allowing for enhanced interoperability among allies.

This cooperation among allies on the F-35 program extends beyond the battlespace – it’s also essential to the aircraft’s production. Hundreds of companies around the world are building components and support equipment for the F-35, generating tens of thousands of jobs worldwide. In the past few years, F-35s for Australia, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have rolled out of the Lockheed Martin Fort Worth, Texas, factory and  the first Italian F-35 rolled out of the Cameri, Italy, Final Assembly & Check Out (FACO) facility. Aircraft for Italy, the Netherlands and Foreign Military Sales (FMS) customers Israel and Japan are on the production line now, and  the Republic of Korea announced last year their selection of the F-35 as their next generation fighter.

F-35 Interoperability

Interoperability through Partnership

The global vision and partnership on the F-35 program goes back to its very origins. In the early 1990s, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) launched a tri-service, combat aircraft recapitalization program called the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The intent of the program was to develop a new fighter fleet, leveraging the U.S.’s recent technology investments while achieving economies of commonality and scale and introducing true service interoperability. In addition, the U.S. National Security Strategy revealed significant capability gaps between the U.S. Air Force’s equipment and equipment used by allied air forces that the new fleet needed to address.

These shortfalls had a major impact on the Component Commanders responsible for air forces within a joint operations environment. To develop a fully interoperable allied fleet, the U.S. government asked seven additional NATO countries (the U.K., the Netherlands, Italy, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Turkey) and key NATO partner Australia to join the program following the contract award to Lockheed Martin in October 2001. Since then, each country has contributed to the production of the F-35 by developing parts and systems for the aircraft.

To further ensure full interoperability among allied nations, the F-35 program established common training facilities at Eglin AFB, Florida, and Luke AFB, Arizona, so that all partners and customers on the program receive similar training and will be ready for any combat situation or mission. This shared training facilitates the ability of allied and partner forces to better work together in action.

The first partner country, the United Kingdom, designated RAF 17 Reserve Squadron as the U.K.’s Operational Test and Evaluation squadron at Edwards AFB, California. The second partner country, the Netherlands, has two aircraft flying, which are being used for Operational Test & Evaluation. By 2018, 376 F-35s are projected to be delivered to NATO countries with an estimated 49 aircraft operating in Europe.

F-35 and F-16

Interoperability as a Force Multiplier

When it comes to having a ‘quarterback’ for the joint strike force, the F-35 is clearly the aircraft for that role. With the most robust communications suite of any fighter built to date, the F-35 is designed to share what it sees with other aircraft to expand situational awareness across the entire network of aircraft.

Two datalinks are core to this interoperability: the legacy Link-16 and the new Multi-Function Advanced Datalink (MADL). These datalinks allow the F-35 to communicate with all current and future NATO assets.

NATO forces currently use the Link-16 connection, which will allow the F-35 to integrate seamlessly into the current coalition force structure. The MADL complements the current networks used by NATO aircraft. As a 5th generation datalink, the MADL will allow for secure and automatic transmission of data between fighters when operating in low observable stealth mode. The F-35’s integrated and fused sensor suite will enable pilots to draw on the information from their sensors, including the data shared across the network, to create a single integrated picture of the battlefield.

With eight of the nine F-35 partner nations as members of NATO, the F-35 will be the backbone of future air operations, enabling full interoperability, information sharing and enhanced partnerships. The F-35 will provide capabilities throughout NATO that are currently uniquely held by the U.S. With the F-35, the ability to penetrate advanced enemy integrated air defense systems will become a core NATO function – helping to ensure global security for decades to come.

June 15, 2015