For many pilots in the Navy, Air Force and
Marine Corps who are going to be flying the
F- 35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, it is an
incredible machine that has been worth the
wait, and one system onboard truly demonstrates just how unique it is.
The F- 35, which made its maiden flight in 2006,
has a communication and navigation system unlike
anything found in legacy jets.
For the program’s Communication, Navigation and
Identification (CNI) team, the main focus this year will
be completing the system development and demonstration (SDD) phase, which will pave the way toward
providing full capability of the CNI system to the fleet,
said Lt. Col. Kirt Cassell, the F- 35 Avionics Integrated
Product Team lead.
“We want to close SDD and provide full capability
to the warfighter,” Cassell said. “That’s what we’re
focused on now.”
CNI is a system that will look a lot different from the
communications systems used in other fighter aircraft.
The three-in-one system is rolled into one software-
based “rack” where different capabilities can be
swapped out with cards that are plugged into or taken
out of it, compared to the rigid “black boxes” installed
on legacy aircraft like the F/A- 18 Hornet. The actual
communications capability on the F- 35 is about the
same, it is just a lot more agile and upgradable.
“Just like legacy fighter jets, there’s Link 16 and
you still have your traditional VHF and UHF voice,”
Because of this, F-35s can communicate not only
with each other, but with any other aircraft or platform
that has legacy communications capabilities like Link
16. In addition, the F- 35 has Multifunction Advanced
Data Link, or MADL, that is virtually impossible for
an enemy to intercept, the program claims. That is
because while Link 16 communications are blasted in
all directions, MADL communications are sent laser-
like from one F- 35 to another.
“It’s unique to the F- 35,” said Eric Van Camp,
director for F- 35 domestic business development
for the aircraft’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin
Aeronautics. “It allows the F- 35 to communicate with
other F-35s in very high data transmission rates.”
MADL is what really separates the F- 35 from the com-
munications systems that came before, Van Camp said.
“Link 16 is omnidirectional, MADL is not,” he said.
“Technically, both could be intercepted, but if you
think of MADL as a pencil beam, and think of Link
16 as omnidirectional, the first thing you’ve got to be
able to do is to be able to intercept something. If you
have the wherewithal to intercept something, then you
have to exploit it, and you have to do it in a very com-
pressed time segment. You may know something, but
if it’s 15 minutes after the fact, and something in your
front yard just blew up, it doesn’t matter.”
So the F- 35 benefits from having a special commu-
nication system that is virtually impossible to intercept
when it is communicating with other F-35s, and it also
can use the other capabilities like Link 16 to communi-
cate with other platforms.
Van Camp said he has been asked many times if all
three variants of the F- 35 share the same communications system. His answer is an emphatic “yes.”
THE F- 35’S NEW SOFTWARE-BASED SYSTEM
PROVIDES MORE AGILE, UPGRADABLE CAPABILITY
BY DANIEL P. TAYLOR, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT