The pilot's edge
The latest technologies help pilots maintain air dominance
It’s called air dominance. Pilots demand it.
"Air dominance means that you are effectively free and unhindered...in the air," said Raytheon's Mark Hopkins, a 35-year veteran of the U.K.'s Royal Air Force. "(It) means you can pretty much do what you want."
Hopkins was instrumental in helping the RAF acquire its force of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets, which will begin to be operational by the end of the year.
The F-35 will help to maintain air dominance for the country's forces, according to Hopkins. "The survivability characteristics of the aircraft and its weapon load will allow it to operate in some of the most testing threat environments that exist," he said, "and will allow (the U.K.) to effectively be a coalition partner of choice for the United States."
Much of air dominance depends on the technology that powers and is carried by aircraft, including avionics, sensors and weapons. Raytheon supplies a lot of these technologies, and is working on the next generation of air dominance, with upgrades across the board.
“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.”
EVOLVING THE WEAPONS
Mouw, now a Raytheon engineer in Operations Research, cites reliability and precision as critical to the many missions he flew in 1990's 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.
One of those weapons was the Paveway laser-guided bomb. Today's version is more advanced, using laser and GPS guidance to hit targets even when they're moving quickly.
That process of modernization is critically important when it comes to making sure pilots have the latest tech, including:
- The newest version of Raytheon’s AIM-120D AMRAAM air-to-air missile, with increased range, GPS-aided navigation and a two-way data link.
- The Joint Strike Missile, a long-distance anti-ship missile that can change course on a dime and fly at low, radar-evading altitudes. Raytheon and Norway’s Kongsberg Gruppen are teaming to develop JSM for the F-35.
- The StormBreaker bomb, formerly called the Small Diameter Bomb II, which can glide more than 40 miles, seeing through fog, smoke and rain. The winged weapon is slated for the F-15E, F/A-18 Super Hornet E/F and all variants of the F-35.
DEFENDING AGAINST CYBER WARFARE
Cyberattacks against military aircraft and command and control, or C2, systems are inevitable. Continuing operations in the face of cyberattacks is key to air dominance. Cyber resiliency depends on giving pilots and commanders the latest, most relevant tools.
Today’s aircraft may get a software patch every two years. Taking a cue from Silicon Valley, Raytheon is shortening software development times to months or even weeks to respond quickly to cyber threats.
“Imagine pushing critical software updates to aircraft around the globe as often as security patches come for your iPhone,” said Todd Probert, vice president of Mission Support and Modernization at the company's Intelligence, Information and Services business.
SEEING THE BIG PICTURE
For Joe “Grip” Beissner, who flew the F-4 and F-15 in a 27-year U.S. Air Force career, radar technology is crucial for dominating the skies.
“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’s Space and Airborne Systems business.
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 without requiring constant attention.
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 the ALR-67(V)3, which equips the F/A-18, is being upgraded with digital capability to increase the pilot's eyes on the environment.
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.
MODERNIZING ACROSS THE BOARD
Tech advances have given Beissner’s son, 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.”