With a minor tweak, F-35s could shoot down North Korean missiles -- but there's a catch

U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman R. Alex DurbinAn F-35 Lightning II demonstration aircraft taking off during the AirPower over Hampton Roads open house at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia on, April 24, 2016.
  • The F-35 could become capable of intercepting ballistic missiles over North Korea with a small tweak to its firmware, but there’s a catch.
  • The F-35 would have to be right next to the launching missile, which would put it in danger.
  • Instead, the F-35 could also use the US Navy’s network to guide a ship-launched missile to hit a launched missile.
  • According to reports, North Korea is planning to launch a satellite, and the US is planning to give Kim Jong Un a “bloody nose,” possibly by stopping one of its launches.

As the US military begins deploying the F-35, which brings with it the promise of revolutionising aerial combat, it may also be deploying a ballistic-missile defence asset.

US jet fighters have spent decades trying to master the air-to-air kill. In the days of “Top Gun” and the F-14 Tomcat, that meant turning dogfights, with a mix of guns and missiles to outfox the other pilot.

But today a new threat has taken aim at the US, and it’s more dangerous than any fighter jet.

As North Korea works toward building out its missile technology to put the US mainland in range of its nuclear arsenal, the F-35’s new air target may be a missile, not a fighter.

According to Justin Bronk, an expert on aerial combat at the Royal United Services Institute, the missiles already aboard the F-35 just need a slight tweak to start taking on missiles.

“By changing the firmware a bit, tweaking it a bit, you could gain a theoretical” capability to engage ballistic missiles, Bronk told Business Insider.

A source involved in ballistic-missile defence at the Pentagon confirmed Bronk’s statement. Basically, the F-35 and its AIM-120 air-to-air missile stand a few wires away from potentially being able to disrupt North Korea’s next missile test, but there’s a catch.

Burnout

Usmc f-35 AIM-120Courtesy of the Joint Program OfficeAn F-35 Lightning II demonstration aircraft taking off during the AirPower over Hampton Roads open house at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia on April 24, 2016.

Perhaps the reason the F-35 doesn’t already come equipped to shoot down ballistic missiles is that doing so still presents a logistical nightmare.

North Korea often launches from unexpected locations, at strange times, and from mobile launchers. This all adds up to a very unpredictable launch, which an F-35 would have limited time to position itself against.

“You’d have to be impractically close to their launch area,” Bronk said. The problem then comes down to the missile itself.

“Given that an AIM-120 burns for seven to nine seconds and then coasts, and a ballistic missile does the opposite, all while climbing,” Bronk explained, the F-35 would have to engage the missile from very close.

As a ballistic missile blasts upward, quickly gaining speed, the AIM-120’s short burn time means the missile has only precious few seconds to catch its target before slowing down. During those seconds, the ballistic missile only gets higher and faster.

F-35 as the quarterback, not a tackle

Sm-3 US Navy raytheon interceptUS Navy

A more likely ballistic-missile defence situation spearheaded by the F-35 could capitalise on what the US military does best: networking complicated systems and getting support from linked assets.

The F-35’s AIM-120 is just 12 feet long, undersize for this role. But the US Navy’s Arleigh-Burke guided-missile destroyers carry several 21-foot-long interceptor missiles.

The F-35’s designers built it to integrate easily with the Navy’s targeting system, so the F-35 can find, track, and provide targeting info to missiles fired from ships or even other jets.

“If you had F-35 loitering as close as possible but not in the airspace, with its sensor package is tuned to pick up a ballistic missile’s infrared signature,” Bronk said, it could function as a “forward part of the warning chain.”

This approach would allow the F-35 to stay out of North Korean airspace, which could be seen as an act of war. Instead, the F-35 simply tracks the ballistic missile, and a US Navy destroyer shoots it down.

Perhaps sooner rather than later

F 35bLockheed MartinAn F-35B begins its short takeoff from the USS America with an external weapons load.

The F-35’s deployment to Japan and its involvement in the ballistic-missile-defence discussion comes at a time of extreme tensions between the US and North Korea, with both sides reportedly announcing intentions to escalate further.

Last week, sources from President Donald Trump’s administration reportedly said they were planning a “bloody nose” attack to damage North Korea’s missile program and humiliate the country.

South Korean media reported on Thursday that North Korea may be planning a satellite launch, which looks very much like a missile launch but instead deposits a satellite in space.

In North Korea, missile launches are key propaganda events and vital to the military’s research and development. For the US, the F-35 is the most expensive weapons system ever made and one that has yet to deliver on its promise of changing the game in aerial warfare.

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