Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II, also commonly known as the Joint Strike Fighter, is about to undergo a largely classified upgrade that promises to turn the technologically advanced aircraft into a far more capable fighter. New improvements include 17 new weapon systems, powerful new radar, expanded electronic warfare capabilities, powerful propulsion upgrades, and more — much of which remains tucked nearly behind a veil of vast quantities of classified funding.
Throughout its service life, the F-35 has been plagued by technical setbacks and cost overruns so egregious that they often overshadow the platform itself, which has been touted by pilots and Defense officials alike as a revolution in tactical airpower. Now, with this new slew of enhancements cruising toward service, the F-35 program may finally produce a data-fusing aerial powerhouse that silences the platform’s most vocal critics… that is, if everything goes according to plan.
Related: Just how good would an F-22/F-35 Hybrid Fighter really be?
The F-35 is the most successful stealth fighter in the world
The F-35 program, now more than two decades old, has long been viewed through two very disparate lenses. For some, the boondoggle that has been the F-35’s acquisition process has come to define the aircraft itself, with repeated technical setbacks, budgetary overruns, and the immense costs associated with F-35 sustainment overshadowing any capability the aircraft might bring to the fight.
But the story from those who fly the F-35 is very different. They often tout the aircraft as nothing less than a revolution in airpower, and it would seem many national governments agree. With 16 nations now waiting in line for F-35 deliveries and more than 890 total airframes produced, there are more F-35s in service today than all other 5th-generation fighters — F-22s, J-20s, and Su-57s — combined.
Despite critics (rightly) highlighting the program’s fiscal failings, the aircraft the Joint Strike Fighter boondoggle produced is objectively the most advanced and broadly capable tactical fighter on the planet, capable of filling the roles of various military aircraft simultaneously, from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to electronic warfare to battlespace management, the F-35 is often referred to as a quarterback in the sky because it offers command-level awareness combined with incredible survivability right in the middle of a fight.
But as capable as today’s F-35s are, they are, nonetheless, built on a now twenty-plus-year-old system architecture that, advanced as it may be, won’t be enough to keep pace with the challenges set to emerge in the next twenty years.
So, while the F-35 may still be the most advanced fighter in the skies today, the F-35 program office is already planning for a day that it isn’t. And that’s where the F-35’s Technology Refresh-3 (TR-3) and Block 4 upgrades come in.
Related: How the F-35 flies the line between failure and success
Technology Refresh-3: The F-35 gets a new brain
Before the F-35 can receive the full brunt of the Block 4 upgrade, it needed a significant revamp of its core computing capabilities. Today, the F-35 remains the most technologically advanced fighter in service, but from a computing standpoint, the F-35’s onboard systems, some of which are more than two decades old, are far from top-of-the-line in 2023.
But while the Technology Refresh-3 effort could be seen as laying the foundation for massive upgrades to come, the truth is, this effort alone will result in a dramatic uptick in the fighter’s capability set.
In a way, the TR-3 effort could be seen as a brain transplant that will provide the fighter with a huge jump in computational power and memory storage, along with a new system architecture that will not only improve the function of practically every system onboard, but that was designed specifically to streamline the process of integrating further improvements down the road.
“Technology Refresh 3 modernizes the computational core of the F-35 air vehicle. Therefore, new TR-3 hardware and software affect nearly every aircraft feature,” Lt. Col. Christopher Campbell, 461st Flight Test Squadron commander and F-35 Integrated Test Force director, explained in January.
The new computing core included in the TR-3 effort offers a whopping 25 times the processing power currently found in the F-35, which, according to Defense contractor L3 Harris, will eventually be coupled with other improvements to increase that an even more astonishing “37-fold increase in computing power.” This processor upgrade will reportedly affect a vast array of onboard systems, including radar processing, its distributed aperture system, electronic warfare suite, communications, guidance, and more. In support of all this new power is a similarly impressive 20-fold increase in data storage.
The F-35’s panoramic cockpit display will also see a significant upgrade, with a five-fold increase in display processing power and two independent “critical display processors” for left and right cockpit displays that offer redundant capabilities in the event of any kind of system failure.
As Steve Trimble reported for Aviation Week last month, these new systems are already rolling off assembly lines in the Block 15 F-35s being produced today, but starting next year in Block 16, the TR-3 upgrades will also come with an improved electronic warfare processer offering three times the power of the F-35’s current system. And starting in 2025, Block 17 F-35s will come equipped with no fewer than 20 electronic warfare receivers capable of detecting and triangulating the location of enemy radar and other signal transmissions — a 75% increase over today’s F-35s that carry just five such receivers.
But as impressive as these upgrades may be… they’re actually all just groundwork for even more substantive upgrades to come.
Related: Can the F-35 dogfight? The truth behind the infamous 2015 report
The Super Lightning II?
The TR-3 update is widely described by insiders as the “IT Backbone” of the Block 4 F-35, which includes some 75 major upgrades over today’s Joint Strike Fighters. While these upgrades will all be incorporated into the same F-35 A/B/C airframes we’ve come to know over the years, the system improvements and added capabilities promise to be so dramatic, it might even warrant a new designation of some sort to differentiate these advanced new fighters from their less-capable siblings.
But unsurprisingly, much of what Block 4 entails remains shrouded in a bit of mystery. Contractors involved in the effort are quick to offer generalized statements about what systems will be improved, but are reluctant to share any specifics. We know for sure that these 75+ upgrades will be rolled out in increments listed as Block 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, and so forth, and that many of these increments will really be based around software adjustments meant to broaden the capability set of the hardware that already exists or that is added in the early stages of the upgrade.
We also know that Block 4 has been described by those in the Joint Program Office as the most ambitious round of upgrades the fighter has received since its inception. Here’s the rundown on what else we can say for sure:
Related: The most important difference between the F-35 and Su-57
Block 4 F-35s will carry 17 new kinetic and “non-kinetic” weapons
A significant part of the Block 4 upgrade will come in the form of newly integrated weapons, which according to some reports, include the Joint Strike Missile, the AGM-88G Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile Extended Range (AARGM-ER) for hunting enemy air defenses at standoff ranges, and the highly capable European Meteor air-to-air missile. Not all of these new weapons are “kinetic,” or traditional munitions, however — suggesting that the F-35 Block 4 upgrade also incorporates a number of new electronic warfare capabilities that had yet to be disclosed.
Perhaps most important of all, Block 4 reportedly includes an expansion of the F-35’s internal weapons carriage capacity. Today’s F-35s fly with a maximum of just four weapons stored internally while maintaining a stealth profile, but Block 4 will increase that to six (depending on loadout), allowing the fighter to carry more ordnance into the fight than ever before.
Related: F-35s encountered China’s J-20: Here’s what the Air Force has to say
The F-35 will get an even more powerful onboard radar array and Distributed Aperture System
Today’s F-35s fly with the Northrop Grumman-sourced AN/APG-81 Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar onboard, widely touted as the most powerful and capable radar system ever to fly in a tactical fighter. This system is so powerful that it can be leveraged not just for identifying and tracking targets on the surface and in the air, but it can even do so while also serving as an electronic warfare asset, jamming enemy radar arrays as it flies. But capable as this system may be, it’s slated to be replaced by an even more powerful radar array, dubbed the AN/APG-85.
Related: What’s inside the F-35’s new radar?
For its part, Northrop Grumman has said only that this new radar system “will incorporate some of the latest technologies available and help ensure air superiority.” This has led many to speculate that this new radar will leverage GaN (Gallium Nitride)-based TRMs (Transmit/Receive Modules). These new TRMs offer a significant increase in power transmission and clarity, even when contending with electronic countermeasures, and also offer better thermal management, which allows you to pump more power through them for both target acquisition and electronic warfare duties.
As Aviation Week’s Steve Trimble reported, this new design has the potential to double the F-35’s target detection range with the same power output and the same size array, giving the F-35 a distinctive edge against other fighters in beyond-visual-range engagements.
Adding to the massive uptick in data available via onboard radar will be a “next generation” distributed aperture system that the Pentagon says will increase performance and reliability with a “larger pixel focal plane array” and higher operating temperatures. This upgrade hasn’t gotten as much attention as the radar, but could be seen as just as important.
The F-35’s existing AN/AAQ-37 Electro-optical Distributed Aperture System (DAS) not only allows the pilot to keep tabs on everything going on around the aircraft via six infrared cameras mounted around the fighter’s body, but also serves as an advanced form of infrared search and track (IRST) capability for identifying and targeting stealth opponents at long distances via their heat signatures. While details are scant about this “next generation” iteration of the F-35’s already increased DAS, it will almost certainly make the fighter a more potent air-to-air opponent against even the most advanced adversaries.
Related: America has 6 new air-to-air missiles headed for service
More power, more range, more thrust
In order to power all of these new systems, the F-35 will need an engine upgrade — a topic that’s led to a battle between engine providers at General Electric and the F-35’s current engine producer, Pratt & Whitney. Just last week, the Pentagon finalized a deal with Pratt & Whitney to continue to provide engines through Lot 17, which extends through the remainder of Tech Refresh 3 and may suggest they’re the frontrunner to continue supplying improved engines for Block 4.
Pratt’s proposal for Block 4 F-35s is cheaper and offers more modest improvements over today’s jets, while GE is pitching new adaptive cycle engines designed primarily for the next generation of fighters that would offer a significant leap in range, thrust, and power production, but at a higher premium.
Pratt & Whitney propose what they call an evolutionary Engine Core Upgrade (ECU) that would increase the jet’s existing F135 engine’s thrust by 10% while improving fuel efficiency by 5%, resulting in what they claim is a 7% increase in range. GE, on the other hand, propose integrating their XA100 adaptive cycle engines that offer a 25% increase in fuel efficiency, a 20% increase in thrust, twice the heat management, and as much as 35% more range.
As exciting as these adaptive cycle engines would be in the F-35, going with GE’s proposal could extend timelines and costs associated with fielding Block 4, which may be enough to sway officials toward the more budget-friendly and modest improvements offered by Pratt & Whitney.
Related: The Air Force is eyeing groundbreaking new engines for the F-35
And a whole lot more…
The Block 4 upgrade to the F-35, now estimated to cost some $15 billion over the span of a decade or more, includes a long list of secretive or even classified improvements that those of us on the outside looking in may never know about. In some cases, there are tantalizing clues, like reports of an advanced new form of chaff, commonly deployed to confuse inbound radar-guided missiles, that is so different from previous forms that it’s got a unique designation unlike any before it.
The Block 4 F-35 upgrade also includes a significant improvement in the aircraft’s ability to actively network with other assets, whether sensors or weapon systems, to produce what the Pentagon is now calling a “kill web.” This will include making the F-35’s Multifunction Advanced Datalink (MADL) compatible with Link 16 datalinks in use by a wide variety of NATO fighters, as well as satellites overhead, while also adding the capability to directly stream live video to friendly forces in the region.
The list, which is admittedly hard to assess because it’s been made intentionally vague, goes on and on — with just about every facet of the aircraft’s capability set seeing some sort of tweak, adjustment, and improvement. These improvements are so expansive that they’ve been reportedly valued at approximately $25 million per aircraft — some 25% of the average per-unit price of the fighter to begin with.
But with this substantial investment comes a dramatic leap in the F-35’s air-to-air and air-to-surface combat capabilities, a massive increase in electronic warfare and sensor fusion power, and more. Once completed, the Block 4 F-35s flying will be so much more capable than their predecessors, that even this platform’s most vehement critics may have to take a step back and re-evaluate their positions.
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Konstantinos Zikidis says
Thank you Alex for this article. All this info was very interesting. However, I think that the parameter of time has not been taken properly into account. OK, the Block 4 would potentially bring significant capabilities. The question is when this standard would be available and fully certified? According to the April 2022 GAO report ( https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-22-105128.pdf ), «the program office extended Block 4 development and delivery into fiscal year 2029—which is now 3 years beyond the original plan.» This means that the Block 4 is expected in the end of 2029, that is almost 7 years from now. That’s a long time, while nobody could assure that there would be no further delay in the plan (as has already been in the past). And nobody knows what there will be available in 7 years time: e.g., very low frequency band radars, missiles combining radar and infrared sensors, kamikaze drones targeting fighter aircraft etc.
Having been closely monitoring the F-35 development for more than a decade, it seems that is Groundhog Day…
Despite the impressive capabilities that the Block 4 is expected to bring, the facts today for the F-35 are as follows:
1. It is at Block 3F standard. TR3 standard is still quite premature, it has just started testing.
2. There are more than 800 discrepancies, and their number does not seem to be decreasing.
3. It has not been declared FOC (Full Operation Capability) and there is no exact plan for that.
4. It is still in LRIP, still pending the JSE test. So, there is no plan for full scale production.
5. The cost per flight hour is very high, approximately $40000 (current value USD), almost double the CPFH of the F-16, which the F-35 was supposed to replace. Even worse, this value pertains to more-or-less “new” aircraft, not requiring heavy maintenance and engine overhaul yet.
Robert Blay says
In FY21 the cost per flying hour for the F35A fell to $33,600. And are aiming for $25,000 for 2025. You have to remember, for the F16, systems such as electro optical targeting, infrared sensors, and electronic warfare are all podded rather than an integral part of the airframe like F35. Maintenance of these systems is not counted as part of the F16’s operating cost per hour.
Sorry to be pedantic, but going from 5 sensors to 20 sensors is a fourfold, 400%, increase, not a 75% increase.
Cloud William says
Good catch. A 75% increase would leave us with 8 3/4 sensors.
However going from 5 to 20 is a 300% increase I believe.
We can walk to the answer:
Ten sensors would be a 100% increase.
Fifteen would be a 200% increase.
And 20 is a 300% increase.
Or the formula for the percentage increase is:
5 : (20 – 5) = 100 : % increase
5 : 15 = 100 : % increase
in which we multiply the means (the 2 interior numbers), then divide by the extreme (the 5 on the left).
(15 × 100) / 5 = 300%
Has Biden shared these upgrades with China yet? They need something for his 10%.
Vincent Forberger says
FUNNY it seems you don’t remember Trumps up XI’s arse and the fact that Trump Shared Top secrete documents with Russia and the Arabs. For a billion dollars. Your a lier and it’s not funny.
You must be mistaken. That was the Clinton regime who gave China our military’s secrets and it was crooked Hillery who gave Russia our uranium. For an undisclosed amount of money. Try harder next time.
Johnathan Galt says
Lots of useful information in this article despite the author’s bemoaning the vagueness of it. Coupled with information about new air to air missiles such as the Perigrine, which will make it possible for a single F-35 to carry up to twelve missiles just as capable as AMRAAM in the same bay formerly holding only 4 AMRAAMs, this will certainly act as a force multiplier.
Don Lemon says
Evan eats shit. He’s a homo shit eater.
Don Lemon says
Evan is a pussy.
Don Lemon says
Evan is a homo.
Don Lemon says
Evan has shit for brains.
Brindley G. Kuiper says
Question, would a fighter jet be more effective if there was a direct link to a remote site where that person could manage all the defensive/offensive capabilities of the jet. Like for drones there are 2 people controlling it…
Aldis Ozols says
The big question to me is whether these upgrades can be retrofitted to existing F-35s.
Does anyone know?
The article pretty well reiterates that, over and over, referring to “upgrades” to existing aircraft as well as those in and coming into producción.
That’s the way I interpreted it, anyway.
Vincent Forberger says
YES read the article it explains everything, read read read.
Cloud William says
Le Carré’s master spy, George Smiley, read important documents and reports twice. This was to eliminate the chance of miscomprehension, as well as to thoroughly commit the material to his bodacious memory.
May I recommend this method to you? I use it. I’m in my 60’s and too much HFCS and too many Big Macs are taking their toll on my so-called intellect–a second reading often wonderfully clears up comprehension blunders.
I think that the era of manned aircraft may be ending. Just in the last week researchers outfitted an physical F-16 with two different AI systems that both flew it really well in combat simulations. Pilots in all aircraft could potentially be replaced that way. Imagine a F35 block 4 with AI.
Bill Hocter says
Until it gets into serious combat, the critics are unlikely to quiet. Proof’s always in the pudding.
As exciting as these kinds of changes are, one has to ask if for the money, we would be better served by massively expanding drone fleets and missile systems. To see in Ukraine what is being done with even very limited quantities of drones and missiles with nary a fighter in the sky makes you wonder what shape the next conflict will take.
Imagine how things would be if there WERE fighters in the air operating in a condition of air superiority or air dominance. Reflect back on what happened on the Highway of Death before the contemporary capabilities existed.
Vincent Forberger says
Note these upgrades will allow our carriers to stand off from being hit with missles from the Chineese. Very little to do with the Ukraine.
Vladimir Dorta says
Yeah, beastly expensive.
Money’s not an object, to the United’s States of America
Arnold Shwarzenegger says
Because we are the wealthiest country in the world. We are superior!
Bryan Andersen says
But – can it fight? Can it punch? Can it shoot an enemy plane?
Dog fights are not going to happen with these modern aircraft
They’ve been saying that ever since the air to air missile became a thing, and have been proven wrong time and time again. Practical situations don’t happen around design philosophies, they happen as they happen, and the weapons you have must be forced to fit the situation, not vice versa (this isn’t WWII when you could have a system as complicated as a fighter go from concept to combat in basically a year).
Let’s say there’s a war against China, with India as an ally. Both China and India fly Flanker-series jets. 100% guarantee that BVR missile shots won’t be allowed in the ROE, and thus dogfighting will become a thing again, not because the weapons systems are designed to do it, but because the rules of engagement dictate it.
Hell, even America’s latest air-to-air kill, our only one of the 21st century, and against an obsolete ground attack aircraft, was taken down with a Sidewinder, within visual range. Not because the Super Hornet COULDN’T have smoked it from a much longer range with an AMRAAM, but because the situation dictated that a closer shot was better for reasons besides the respective capabilities of the Super Hornet and Fitter.
How many BVR air-to-air kills have ever been recorded at all? I don’t know if any have. Surely not a whole lot.
Weapons designers don’t always take practical use into mind. The M855 “green tip” round that I used in Iraq was designed to penetrate a Soviet helmet at 600 yards. Nobody is realistically going to be taking 600 yard head shots with a 5.56mm rifle, or hitting those shots it they do, and the M855 is a very poor performer at more practical ranges.
I doubt the people who design fighter jets, who are probably FAR more removed from air combat than the designers of specific bullets are feom ground combat, are considering practical scenarios like that any more.
Vincent Forberger says
The new missles and lasers will put and end to traditional dog fighting period we will be attacking these countries directly from far distances. We will also take out there missles and missles batteries then come the bunker busters. The new supersonic missles will take out their ships. Just because you don’t hear top secrete thi gs like being able to give a host of land and ship based defenses doesn’t mean the f35 can’t use the Air force, Army, Navy and Marine weapons to take out advceries doesn’t mean it can’t. To truly understand its amazing feats you need to read existing litutcher to understand its built in capabilities on the most advanced plane in the world.