Friday, July 18, 2014

Can Anyone Talk To The F-35?

ComNavOps at one time reported on a communications problem associated with the F-35.  Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to get any details or even a vague understanding of the scope of the problem.  Well, finally, I’ve found a bit more information and it’s an eye-opener. 

To summarize and simplify, apparently the F-22 and F-35 each have their own unique communications equipment, protocols, and formats.  They can talk to other F-22s and F-35s, respectively, but not to other platforms nor to each other, at least not without compromising their stealth.  They seem to have the ability to use Link 16 to talk to other platforms but only at the expense of compromising their stealth.

You’ll recall that the F-35 has been advertised as being able to penetrate air defense networks and act as an information node for all other platforms.  That’s a nice concept except that apparently they can’t actually communicate without giving away their position.

From an Aviation Week website article come these statements (1).  The article was written from an F-22 and Air Force focus but the F-35 issues are common for the Navy’s versions of the F-35.

"... the service has two stealthy fighters—each costing more than $100 million per aircraft—that cannot effectively share data with the fleet (or each other) without compromising the very stealthiness that drove up their cost."

"At issue, however, is a decades-long haphazard approach to data links. By design, the F-22 was developed to communicate only with other F-22s via the in-flight data link (IFDL)."

"The single-engine F-35, by contrast, uses the Multi-function Advanced Data Link (MADL) system, which employs a different waveform and retains its low probability of intercept/low probability of detection (LPI/LPD) by using directional antennas and operating over short distances ..."

Unfortunately, no other platform has MADL and no other platform can receive the communications from it.

"The F-22 can receive on Link 16 and the F-35 can both transmit and receive on the system, but in terms of detection, data delivery via Link 16 is “like turning on a big light bulb in the sky,” an industry source says."

The F-22 apparently can’t even transmit on Link 16!

This next statement is a stunner.

"The F-22 issue has already become a hindrance. It was considered for use in the Libya campaign in 2011, but planners were stymied by an inability to deliver data collected by the F-22s back to other forces, according to one industry source, forcing the Air Force’s premier asset to sit on the sidelines."

Our most advanced fighter aircraft sidelined because it can’t talk to anyone!

"The Air Force had planned to equip all aircraft with the F-35 MADL to facilitate fleetwide connectivity, but its cost proved prohibitively high."

Presumably, that applies to the Navy as well.

Well, there you have it.  The F-35 is intended to be a data node for the rest of the platforms in its region and yet it can’t communicate with them while retaining its stealth. 

Do you recall the LCS MCM module that was intended to use the helo to tow the MCM equipment but it turned out that the helo had insufficient power and couldn’t do it?  We all wondered why someone didn’t check that on day one of the development program?  Well, this is kind of the same thing.  We designed a stealthy aircraft that would be a data node for the entire fleet (air and sea) and yet no one thought to ask whether it could actually talk to the fleet and remain stealthy? 

Seriously, is it a requirement to be brain dead before you can manage these programs or can you take the job and then have a lobotomy?

(1) , “Air Force Fifth-to-Fourth Plan Questioned”, Amy Butler, 17-Jul-2014


  1. What we are seeing here is the consequence of two interacting trends:

    First, when the process becomes the product, the substance of the hard questions which need to be asked and then subsequently answered don't matter much anymore, because someone can always come up with a change to The Process which theoretically solves all those hard questions -- even if this means defying the laws of physics and ignoring the hard-won lessons of sound project management practice.

    Second, when the easily predicted technology risks of projects such as the F-22 and the F-35 are being greatly discounted by their project management team from the very first day of the project, then the project blows its original cost and schedule in a big way and begins consuming the contingency resources needed to insure that the new platform and the combat systems which are to support it can be pushed through to completion.

    Even in the face of the F-22's known project management problems and its cost overrun history, at the time the decision was made in 2009 to terminate F-22 production, there was still every justification to cancel the F-35 instead; to build more F-22s; and to assign the F-35's strike mission to the F-22.

    If you are going to spend $130 million per copy for a 4.5 Gen F-35 limited-capability strike airframe, why not spend $140 - $150 million for a 5.0 Gen full-capability F-22 air superiority / multi-mission airframe?

    But nooooo. We wouldn't be spending nearly enough money in nearly enough states if we made these kinds of decisions.

  2. Yer it is an area I am a little familiar with, the comms is via AESA beam forming and this maintains stealth. Obviously you then kind of end up with a situation where you need compatable "random frequency beamforming" AESA to communicate ( stealthly ) and not everything has that.

    Development is taking place on the most modern Key platforms hopefully ahead of the critical moment.

    The Lybia F22 thing I think was about Political issues and the fact that air superiority was established already by carrier based Rafaels in like 10 minutes flat. So i dont think F22 would have had much to offer at the point it was in the frame.


  3. Emission Control is a tricky problem - if you're operating under it, you're running silent.

    The Advanced Tactical Data Links suite (ATDL) covers the problem. F-22's communicate with each other stealthily over short ranges using their Inter Flight Data Link (IFDL). F-35 using the evolved Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL).

    As you correctly highlight, if they want to break radio silence they have on-board Link 22 and Link 16 respectively - assuming friendly units have the same equipment and it's safe to transmit.

    Shorter term, aircraft such as the Global Hawk carry equipment to act as a Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN), receiving the stealthy communications and relaying them via SATCOM or Link systems.

    Coming up is the Radar Common Data Link, which is the high bandwidth, low-probability of intercept AESA communication modes. Again likely to be fitted to Nodes in order to allow non-AESA equipped or non-RCDL capable units to communicate.

    There's weaknesses in the node scheme, though enough nodes and growing number of equipped and capable units over time mitigates the risk.

    IFDL/MADL makes a significant difference to a Raptor or Lightening II pilot flying under strict EMCON rules though - instead of being isolated on their own in their cockpit they can at least coordinate (and just talk!) stealthily with their nearby fellows.

  4. The answer is simple and four-fold

    1. F-35's in non-compromising locations can freely relay info from other F-35s to the rest of the network via Link-16. They can do this now and requires no additional equipment or software.

    2. F-35's can use their SATCOM antennas to transmit info tot eh rest of the network. This is stealthy but slower than MADL. It's planned for Block4.

    3. 5th to 4th is a program to add the ability for 4th gen assets to receive IFDL and MADL transmissions. This will make each of them a virtual BACN aircraft. This is an ongoing program and has flying hardware.

    4. MADL (or a future version compatible with it) terminals are planned to be installed in multiple locations like ships, IFR, ISR, AWACS, and other nearby assets in order to receive the F-35's stealthy comms.

    1. This seems to be a problem blown out of proportion.

      Since you would only exclusively use the LPI datalink when in high threat areas, the support assets and other assets won't be operating there anyway. So as long as the F-35s can talk to each other, you are fine. What is an AWACS several hundred miles away going to tell you anyway? And just because the F-35 isn't transmitting doesn't mean it can't receive info, because it has all the gear.

      So ultimately, if everyone else is transmitting you can to. If no one is around to transmit, you can use your own LPI datalinks. While the people back at HQ lose a little situational awareness and ability to micro manage, the impact on the warfighter is pretty minimal.


    2. USNVO, respectfully, the problem may be bit more serious than you've described. The Navy's concept for the F-35 (or at least one of the concepts - possibly conceived after the fact?) is that it will penetrate high threat areas utilizing its stealth and then transmit up-to-the-moment data from inside the threat area back out to less stealthy aircraft (Hornets, P-8s, etc.) which will then act as the shooters, safely out of harm's way. So, yes, in this concept, the inability to transmit without broadcasting their location would be a serious issue for the F-35.

  5. Well of course they don't need to communicate with those older aircraft because they all should have been replaced by F35s already!

    1. Not.

      The F-35 was ALWAYS envisioned to be in production for 25 years. They know from the start that it would need ways to communicate with the rest of the network, which is one reason why it kept full Link16 capabilities.


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