Navy to Integrate F-35 With Beyond-the-Horizon Technology

F-35C Lightning IIThe Navy and Lockheed Martin are planning to demonstrate a beyond-the-horizon anti-ship missile detection and defense technology using an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The system, referred to as Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air, or NIFC-CA, uses Aegis radar, an airborne sensor and SM-6 missile to find, track and destroy approaching threats such as cruise missiles at ranges well beyond the typical radar horizon, Navy officials said.

Alongside Aegis radar and an SM-6 missile, NIFC-CA uses an E-2D Hawkeye aircraft as an airborne sensor to help relay threat information to the ship from beyond its normal radar range.

Lockheed is working closely with Naval Sea Systems Command, or NAVSEA, to plan a NIFC-CA demonstration at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., sometime this year or next year, a Lockheed executive said.

“We are looking at alternative airborne sensors,” the executive said.

The idea with a demonstration, sources indicate, would be to use the F-35 as an airborne relay node or sensor in place of the E-2D Hawkeye. This could allow NIFC-CA to operate against an increasingly complex set of targets such as stealthy targets, the Lockheed executive explained.

Sensors on the F-35 include the Active Electronically Scanned Array, or AESA, radar as well as a system called Distributed Aperture System, or DAS, which combines input from as many as six different electro-optical cameras on the aircraft.  The aircraft also draws upon a technology called Electro-optical Targeting System, or EOTS, which helps identify and pinpoint targets.  EOTS, which does both air-to-air and air-to-ground targeting, is able to combine forward-looking infrared and infrared search and track technology.

NIFC-CA is a technology which could alter the strategic calculus for both offensive and defensive warfighting scenarios; it is the kind of system which could have implications regarding what the Pentagon likes to call anti-access/area-denial or A2/AD – the strategy through which potential adversaries seek to use long-range weapons such as anti-ship guided missiles to deny U.S. forces the ability to operate in strategically important areas.  For instance, long-range, land-launched cruise missiles could make it more difficult for Navy ships to approach certain coastal waterways.

However, if there were a NIFC-CA-enabled ability to identify and destroy approaching threats at much further distances beyond the horizon – that could greatly impact where U.S. forces such as Navy ships and carrier groups could safely operate.

Alongside this defensive role, NIFC-CA technology can bring offensive firepower capability to Navy ships as well, allowing them to attack targets at much greater ranges. For example, the SM-6 uses both active and semi-active guidance technology, giving it the ability to discriminate and destroy targets at ranges beyond-the-horizon. NIFC-CA could potentially be used for long range offensive strikes against a range of enemy targets to include things such as aircraft, unmanned systems, ships, vehicles and buildings.

The NIFCA-CA is slated to deploy later this year with Navy forces in 2015 as part of the Teddy Roosevelt battle group, so this cruise missile defense technology will be protecting the fleet soon.

NIFC-CA is part of the Navy’s upgraded Aegis ballistic missile defense system called Baseline 9, which is being engineered into destroyers now under construction such as DDG 113 through DDG 118. Baseline 9 is already engineered onto a handful of platforms including the USS John Paul Jones, a destroyer– and two cruisers, the USS Chancellorsville and the USS Normandy.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • blight_

    And if they are pushing SM-6’s onto Baseline 5 et al ships, then it means baseline 9 (and NIFC-CA) is unlikely to be in the existing ships of the fleet any time soon. It would seem based on the previous article that since the SM-6 has SARH mode it will likely be fired OTH and then be left to its own devices on non-Baseline 9 ships, which can use NIFC-CA to hand them off to Hawkeyes and JSF. It would appear that the NIFC-CA capability relies on a connection between the missile, the firing ship and the JSF (and that NIFC-CA isn’t necessarily about “handing off” to the tracking aircraft). If hand-off was possible, then any SM-6 fired OTH could be handed off to any JSF or Hawkeye without requiring upgrade to Baseline 9 on most of the DDG’s still afloat.

  • Mark

    We simply do not need to know these things about the capabilities. The less the population knows the less advisaries have access to know.

  • miles

    I find it difficult not to blurt out a snide remark about its lack of a A-10 Avenger cannon!!!!

  • Charles

    While these guys are working on the stuff they think is really cool, we have the Chair Force trying to kill other (working/fighting/cheap-to-run/heavily-armed/armored-like-a-tank) useful aircraft because they can’t be bothered to even make the gun fire.

    I’m sure it makes sense to everyone in the Chair Force who isn’t getting shot at.

  • donbacon

    Let’s talk about what the F-35 will do, and not about what it can’t do, like fly a full flight envelope because of a bum engine, or fire a gun, etc.

  • Highguard

    Given the overwhelming lack of support to modernize the force, this is obviously a practical step in the right direction. Thankyou LMCO. Break Break, what happens when a couple of J-10s or a J-20 comes after that F-35B after it helps intercept the ASCMs?! JSF will not be able to run away.

  • oblatt22

    Well there goes the Hawkeye modernization, into the gaping maw of the F-35 program.

  • BlackOwl18E

    That new JSF CAS propaganda video must not have been able to convince lawmakers that the F-35 was all that necessary so they’ve resorted to something else for an argument to allow the flow of funding to keep coming. Not surprising, still disappointing.

    • CharleyA

      Yea, LM and its proxies been trying to sell the F-35’s DAS system as useful in missile defense. Too bad the F-35 has limited endurance - and the DAS system itself suffers from a high false alarm rate - to make it useful in this role. But the F-35C might a useful interim solution for a forward sensor until something is decided for UCLASS.

    • Guest

      Ground troops will most likely get better close air support from an artillery tube and a GPS Excalibur round.

  • RunningBear

    “Well there goes the Hawkeye modernization, into the gaping maw of the F-35 program. ”

    ….not exactly, any modern USN a/c with data link capability can “feed” data back to the NIFC-CA, cruiser/ destroyer to designate targets for their SM-6s. Those a/c “could” be the E-2C/D 2000/Advanced, F/A-18E/F, F/A-18A/B/C/D with AESA upgrades, F-35B/C, EA-18G, EA-6B, I shudder to think that those “data links” might extend to those “boys in blue’s toys”; F-22/16/15, B-1/2/52. Most of these folks would welcome a SM-6 “wingman”.

  • CharleyA

    The Lockheed Martin exec states that the F-35 “will replace” the E-2D. Nope, it will not replace the E-2D - it will act as a forward sensor node, and via a NON-stealthy link, communicate back to the E-2D, and from there to the AEGIS / SM-6 shooter. DAS, which is one of the systems that LM likes to flaunt in this scenario, doesn’t even work properly - it has an unacceptably high false alarm rate. And the F-35 radar is a frontal aspect sensor, not a 360 (or variable aspect) sensor like what is installed on the E-2D. We should also note that both the EA-18 and F/A-18 E/F can perform similar targeting for NIFC-CA. This is interesting in that the limited magazine of the F-35 makes it more useful as a forward sensor platform than a heavy strike platform - the shooters will more than likely be Super Hornets, acting on coordinated linked from the F-35C. And if you think about it, the F-35C in this role could be easily replaced by a notional UCAV that could stay on station for much longer.

    • RunningBear

      “…..the F-35C in this role could be easily replaced by a notional UCAV that could stay on station for much longer.”….it might be.more likely to have that longer on station time on “a 360 (or variable aspect) sensor “…also with Northrop and Raytheon wanting to do an AESA upgrade on the Hornets, they (A/B/C/D) too would be able to haul more a/a missles to be used by higher level players; be they F-35B/C or E-2D. EO/TS is coming to IOC in June (6 months) and the Marines aren’t going to accept a “flaky” system on their new “Gem” a/c, :) !!

    • Curtis Conway

      The E-2D Advanced Hawkeye is one of the Primary OTH nodes. We need a similar node for the MAGTF in the ARG.

  • 8950331

    Beyond these potential uses, does this aircraft have any advantages over the Harrier that our Marines are currently using? Just curious….

  • Brandon

    If the F-35C is getting this upgrade than is the F-35A and its export F-35A variants gets this upgrade as well?

  • JOHN


  • tyts

    The black projects are the ones you don’t know about

  • rat

    The USN found a good use of the F-35…. Great news because the only thing this fighter can’t do is fight other modern adversary fighters.

  • bbabbitt

    Wonderful. And as an A-10 replacement, just how will this help our ground troops?

  • stpaulchuck

    good grief, does the Pentagon have zero memory? I thought they taught military history in officers’ school. We went through this in Viet Nam with the F4 and this ‘over the horizon’ nonsense. Against a similarly equipped enemy it ALWAYS comes down to close in gun fights.

  • bdingo

    Geee -wow -that will help the ground troops fighting the taliban and isis and all other stone age enemies-How about pilotless attack planes that can see over the horizon?