The F-35 is about to get a lot more lethal in air-to-air combat — without losing its stealth

U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon E. RenfroeA US Navy F-35C Lightning II over Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, on February 1.
  • The top US defence contractor Lockheed Martin has unveiled a new weapons rack meant to increase the internal air-to-air missile carrying capacity of the F-35.
  • The new weapons rack – Sidekick – is designed to allow the fifth-generation fighters to carry an additional AIM-120 Amraam in each of its two internal weapons bays, increasing the weapons capacity to six from four.
  • The Sidekick weapons rack is intended to give the F-35As and F-35Cs mainly flown by the Air Force and Navy a firepower boost without sacrificing stealth.
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Lockheed Martin has developed a new weapons rack meant to give the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter a boost in firepower without sacrificing stealth, the defence contractor announced Wednesday.

The fifth-generation stealth fighters today can carry four AIM-120 radar-guided air-to-air missiles, but the new weapons rack – Sidekick – will allow the aircraft to hold an additional Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile in each of the aircraft’s two internal weapons bays, Lockheed’s F-35 test pilot Tony “Brick” Wilson said at a media briefing, according to Seapower Magazine.

That would raise the number of Amraams the F-35 can carry to six from four, giving the fighter more to throw at an enemy fighter or drone in air combat.

F-35A Lightning II test aircraft assigned to the 31st Test Evaluation Squadron from Edwards Air Force Base, California, released AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X missiles at QF-16 targets during a live-fire test over an Air Force range in the Gulf of Mexico on June 12, 2018.U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Michael JacksonAn F-35A Lightning II test aircraft during a live-fire test over an Air Force range in the Gulf of Mexico on June 12.

The F-35 stores weapons internally to maintain stealth. Presently, a strictly internal loadout allows the fighter to carry up to 5,700 pounds of ordnance.

Internally, the planes can carry a full set of Amraams or a mixture of air-to-air missiles and air-to-surface Joint Direct Attack Munitions.

The aircraft can also operate in “beast mode,” a combined internal and external loadout that allows the F-35 to fly into battle with up to 22,000 pounds of weaponry – but this configuration degrades the jet’s stealth advantage.

Three F-35C Lightning II, attached to Commander, Joint Strike Fighter Wing, the “Argonauts” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147, the U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon E. RenfroeThree F-35C Lightning II aircraft over Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach on February 1.

Lockheed’s new Sidekick weapons rack will reportedly be available for the Air Force F-35As and Navy F-35Cs but not the Marine Corps F-35Bs. These planes have smaller weapons bays because of a lift fan needed for short takeoff and vertical landing, a requirement for operations aboard US amphibious assault ships.

The F-35 program office first mentioned efforts to add capacity for another Amraam in each weapons bay two years ago. “There’s a lot of engineering work to go with that,” the program’s director explained at the time, according to Air Force Magazine.

Speaking with reporters Wednesday, Wilson said the “extra missiles add a little weight but are not adding extra drag.” He also said the F-35 had the ability to eventually carry hypersonic missiles should that capability be necessary.

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