U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters from the 58th Fighter Squadron, 33rd Fighter Wing, Eglin AFB, Fla. perform an aerial refueling mission with a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 336th Air Refueling Squadron from March ARB, Calif., May 14, 2013 off the coast of Northwest Florida. The 33rd Fighter Wing is a joint graduate flying and maintenance training wing that trains Air Force, Marine, Navy and international partner operators and maintainers of the F-35 Lightning II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen/Released)

The F-35 fighter is the most advanced tactical aircraft currently in production anywhere. Its low-observable (“stealth”) features give the plane a radar signature similar to that of a steel golf ball, and its onboard sensor fusion gives the pilot unprecedented situational awareness.

Designed to perform a diverse array of missions, from air-to-air combat to precision bombing to radar jamming to intelligence gathering, the F-35 is so capable that 16 countries have signed up to buy it—and more will follow.

However, the F-35 needs to maintain its fighting edge over potential enemies through 2070. No matter how imaginative its original configuration may have been, periodic upgrades of the fighter’s technology will be required. The upgrades are needed not only to perform new missions, but to assimilate better technology for accomplishing existing tasks...

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the issuance of contracts to develop the F-35 Lightning II, America's fifth-generation fighter aircraft. Since its launch, the program has set the standard for the incorporation of new technologies and components into fighter aircraft, such as thrust vectoring, composite materials, stealth technology, advanced radar and sensors, and integrated avionics to greatly improve pilot situational awareness. But the time has come for necessary upgrades.

Specifically, planned air vehicle growth on the F-35 will exceed the current thrust, power and thermal management (PTMS) capabilities on the fighter jet's F135 engine by the end of the decade. As a result, a propulsion overhaul is needed. There are two schools of thought about how best to accomplish this goal.

Many policymakers in Washington favor a suite of upgrades to the existing F135 engine known as the Enhanced Engine Package (EEP). These modifications would allow the aircraft to continue to meet operational requirements by improving thrust and range by more than 10% each and providing a 50% improvement in thermal management. As a retrofit, it would also allow the military to maintain the F-35' current supply chain, infrastructure and sustainment network...

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(Washington D.C.) The Pentagon is working with industry to explore the possibility that bomb, missile or laser-armed F-35s could destroy an attacking nuclear-armed Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) targeting the US, potentially bringing a new dimension to existing defenses.

F-35s & ICBMs

The concept, according to industry and Pentagon developers, would be to use F-35 weapons and sensors to detect or destroy an ICBM launch during its initial “boost” phase of upward flight toward the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere. The F-35 could use a “kinetic” solution wherein it fires upon and destroys a launching ICBM -- or a “sensor” solution where it “cues missile defense systems.”

While Pentagon F-35 officials emphasize the F-35 program is currently focused on nearer-term efforts such as delivering software upgrades to the airplane, there is growing consensus that exploring F-35 nuclear missile defense is something of great potential benefit. Early conversations and conceptual work are already underway...

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