Mastering the skies

Robust tech gives pilots a toolkit to achieve air dominance

F-35A Lightning II test aircraft

An F-35A Lightning II test aircraft released AMRAAM missiles and AIM-9X missiles at QF-16 targets during a live-fire 2018 test over an Air Force range in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

It’s called air dominance. Pilots demand it.

“Basically, you own the skies and keep the enemy out from whatever they might want to be doing,” said Mark “Chairman” Mouw, a 25-year U.S. Air Force veteran who flew the F-4 Phantom II, and F-15 C/E. “Whether that’s preventing aircraft from operating in the sky or protecting our ground forces from anything that might come from the sky – in my mind, that’s air dominance.”

Much of air dominance depends on the technology that powers aircraft and that they carry, including avionics, sensors and weapons. 

Tech evolution

Mouw, now a Raytheon engineer, cites reliability and precision as qualities necessary to the tech he used as he flew missions in 1990-1991's Operation Desert Shield.

“The engine, the avionics, everything down to the weapons – they would go where you wanted them to go, and they did it every time,” said Mouw.

Today’s fighter pilots rely on even more advanced systems, such as the StormBreaker smart weapon, which can see through fog, smoke and rain, and glide more than 40 miles. The winged munition is slated for the F-15E, F/A-18 Super Hornet E/F and all variants of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter by 2023. The JSF can carry eight StormBreaker weapons internally and eight on the wings.

Other modernized tech includes the AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, the first short-range, air-to-air missile to be used on the F-35. The U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and Raytheon have successfully test-fired an AIM-9X Block I missile from an airborne F-35A. Introduction across the F-35 fleet is expected in 2020.

The newest version of Raytheon’s AMRAAM missile has increased range, GPS-aided navigation and a two-way data link, and is operational on all F-35 variants. It’s the only radar-guided, air-to-air missile cleared to fly on the F-35. 

Raytheon and Norway’s Kongsberg Gruppen are developing the Joint Strike Missile for the F-35. The long-distance, anti-ship missile can change course in flight and fly at low, radar-evading altitudes. 

Transforming command

The U.S. Air Force has deployed the Air and Space Operations Center – Weapons System at 22 locations around the world. The AOC-WS receives, hosts and parses incoming data used in the information-rich environment the Air Force calls “fusion warfare.” It allows combatant commanders to plan, oversee and execute theater-wide air and space missions.

“It’s the nerve center of air campaigns,” said Ian Mitchell, Raytheon Air and Space Operations Center Block 20 program director. “It’s where commanders plan, monitor and direct sortie execution.”

The current AOC-WS is highly advanced, yet there is still a lot of manual labor needed to create Air Tasking Orders. Raytheon is automating a number of processes with AOC-WS Block 20.

“We’re using commercial software best practices, including Agile and DevOps, to get new capabilities in days instead of years,” Mitchell said. “Many of these were existing capabilities, but now they’re automated. No more phone calls and filling out spreadsheets. It allows our commanders to make quicker, more informed decisions.”

Vision in flight

 For Joe “Grip” Beissner, who flew the F-4 and F-15 in a 27-year Air Force career, radar technology is a crucial element. 

“I need the radar to do more so I, as the pilot, can use my eyes, ears and other sensors,” said the former fighter pilot, now a business development lead at Raytheon.

Today’s active electronically scanned array, or AESA, radar systems enable aircrews to switch from air-to-air to air-to-ground mode nearly simultaneously, painting a complete picture of the environment.

Radar warning receivers are also evolving. The ALR-69A, the world's first all-digital radar warning receiver, alerts pilots to threats in dense signal environments. The system is being tested on the F-16 Fighting Falcon and is installed on the C-130H Hercules and KC-46A Pegasus.

The ALR-67(V)3, which equips the F/A-18, is being upgraded to an all-digital variant to increase situational awareness.

In 2018, Raytheon received a contract to build the F-35’s most important sensor, the Distributed Aperture System. The DAS collects and sends high-resolution, real-time imagery to the pilot's helmet from six infrared cameras mounted around the aircraft, allowing pilots to see the environment around them day or night.

The modern touch

Tech advances have given Beissner’s son, a pilot who flies the latest variant of the F-15, more ability in the skies.

“He is quick to tell me, ‘What you used to fly is not what I fly now,’” Beissner said.

While the F-35 is critical to future combat, it’s important to keep legacy fighters like the F-15 and F-16 modernized for tomorrow's missions. 

"The F-15—whether it be an F-15C or an F-15E —has done the job it has been expected to do extremely well for a very long time,"  he said, "I don’t see that going away, even in tomorrow’s fight.”

Published On: 07/05/2018
Last Updated: 09/26/2019