F-35 fighter jet pilots could use drones in future missions - aviation expert

F-35 fighter jet pilots could use drones in future missions - aviation expert

British pilots flying the F-35 stealth fighter jet may one day in the decades to come be able to operate and release drones during missions, it has been suggested.

Steve Over, director of F-35 international business development at Lockheed Martin, the company which manufactures the multi-million pound warplanes, was speaking to the Press Association about how the jet might evolve.

Asked whether the F-35 Lightning II could in future work with or launch drones, Mr Over, a former engineer who has worked for the American aviation giant for 35 years, said it is not currently a capability that is certified in the programme.

"If you ask me where do I see things evolving - I absolutely see them evolving in that direction," he said.

Lockheed Martin describes the stealth capabilities of the F-35 as "unprecedented".

With airframe design, advanced materials and other features making it "virtually undetectable to enemy radar", the warplane could be sent into the airspace of an adversary if required.

Once there, the jet might be tasked with destroying the radar systems of that particular state, but to do so would require them to be triggered so they could be detected and destroyed.

Mr Over said: "Say I'm on a seam mission - suppression of enemy air defences - and so if I bring an F-35 in full stealth mode into his battle space, he doesn't know I'm there and doesn't turn on the radars, and therefore I can't use their sensors against them.

"So, wouldn't it be nice if I had a little un-stealthy drone that I could release from the F-35 and it could be the thing that stimulates their air defences? That's the kind of thing I can see evolving."

Mr Over also said that "as you get further and further out into the time and space of the future", he can also see the need for "little remotely piloted wingmen that are weapons carriers for the airplane".

"So that with the sensors on board my aircraft, I can target things and then deploy weapons from the little companion wingman," he added.

Asked where that wingman or flock of them might be during such a situation, he said "somewhere in close proximity".

Britain is currently embarked on a £9.1 billion programme to purchase 48 of the cutting-edge jets by 2025 - but has pledged to purchase 138 across the life of the programme.

The F-35 programme is considered the world's most advanced warplane - with more than 3,000 set to be built over the coming decades.

Quizzed on whether he foresees a time in the future where an F-35 could operate without a pilot, Mr Over said: "As an engineer I will tell you, I don't see a time when fighter airplanes like this that are frontline defence weapons for a nation are remotely-piloted vehicles.

"Where you rely exclusively on data links for a pilot that is positioned in some remote operating centre to be able to operate that, those data links represent a vulnerability, a cyber vulnerability."

"When you get into the world of cyber you can never make something that is 100% guaranteed impenetrable - so it is a constant game of cat and mouse where you are evolving and the adversaries are evolving against you.

"So, you never want to be in a situation where unbeknownst to you your adversaries can take over your data links and use your fighters against you."

- PA

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