Weapons and upgrades could define the next era for the worldwide fighter market.

As Lockheed Martin (Chalet 316, Static C2) and the Pentagon attempt over the next year or so to assemble a three-year block buy of 400-500 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, potential customers will be looking for firm definition behind the much-redefined Block 4 upgrade process, which will define all the capabilities that the F-35 will have between now and 2027.

This long-range planning is essential for JSF, because the program is large and weapon and system integration issues are unique. From the very start of the project, it has been a given that all aircraft in the worldwide fleet will be upgraded concurrently, so as to avoid having a multiplicity of configurations.

This one-size-fits-all approach will in theory be the result of consensus among the customer community, but in practice will be dominated by the U.S., which will be signing the biggest single check. It presents a dilemma: how can you put as many upgrades and improvements on the schedule as possible to meet today’s national desires, while leaving capacity to change plans as new technologies and threats emerge?

Another delicate balance concerns the timing of improvements. In Wednesday’s ShowNews (p. 46), I wrote about the rapidly improving technology of electro-optical targeting, including hyperspectral systems that fuse midwave infrared (IR), shortwave IR and color video to give the pilot the best available picture. All of this has appeared since the F-35 was designed, so its current midwave-IR-only electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) looks a little dated, and will be even more so when the JSF is ready for export customers.

This issue has been recognized, and an Advanced EOTS is being designed with sharper, multi-spectral sensors and new processors. It should cut into production in Block 4, and according to Lockheed Martin is a top priority for many users. But this does not necessarily help to sell a lot of Block 3 aircraft: if Block 4 is going to include such a significant improvement, why not stretch out the lives of your existing fighters and delay F-35 deliveries?

It is sensors and weapons that make a fighter flexible and give it longevity – the latter not measured by airframe life, but by how long it can remain effective against evolving targets and threats. As well as targeting pods, this year’s show features a new generation of air-to-air missiles (AAMs): MBDA’s formidable (if costly) Meteor, four of which arm the Rafale M in the static display, and Rafael’s I-Derby Extended Range.

The I-Derby ER is worth a few words because it is the opposite of the F-35 upgrade strategy: cheap, fast and easy to integrate. Rafael has updated Derby with its own RF seeker technology – the current Derby has an Israel Aerospace Industries seeker developed in the 1990s – and the multi-pulse motor experience from the Barak 8 naval air defense system and David’s Sling. Rafael has removed the Derby’s electro-optical fuze and built the function into the radar, which frees up 50 cm of length for propellant. Between that and the pulsed motor, this “almost doubles” the range, Rafael says.

If you already have Derby or an aircraft that can fire Derby, integrating the ER is easy – it is exactly the same shape as the earlier version. But if you want a longer-range AAM on the F-35, you have no options today. Sometime in Block 4 you may get Meteor or the AIM-120D version of the Advanced Medium Range AAM. Raytheon (Chalet 296, Static B10) people sometimes talk about AIM-120D in “it’s so good that it’s very secret” terms, but consistent evidence says it still has the AIM-120C7 motor, and there is only so much that you can do with the kinematics at that point.

In the wider competitive picture, France has done a creditable job since the early 2000s of sticking to its timeline for Rafale upgrades, including the deployment of a full range of weapons, and new targeting and reconnaissance pods from Thales (Chalet 263, Static B1, Hall Corcorde 39). Saab has shown an ability to integrate payloads faster and at less cost than its competitors – including U.S. weapons such as the Small Diameter Bomb – and after a good deal of foot-dragging, the four Eurofighter nations have recognized that Typhoon needs a full range of weapons and systems and have put some money behind that intention.

The F-16 could be a lesson for Team F-35. Various F-16 customers paid for a series of improvements that the U.S. did not want, or did not want at the time: the F-16D’s expanded dorsal spine, conformal fuel tanks, two-way satcoms and a number of active electronic warfare systems, not to mention almost every weapon in the Western inventory. That seems to have worked out quite well.