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Sensor upgrades top USAF wish list for F-35 Block 4

Improving two of the Lockheed Martin F-35’s key sensors should be priorities for a future operational standard called Block 4, says a top US Air Force general.

Upgrading the Lockheed electro-optical targeting system and adding a wide-area high-resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) mode – dubbed “– Big SAR” to the Northrop Grumman APG-81 active electronically scanned array (AESA) are must-haves, says Gen Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, chief of Air Combat Command.

“I think as we look to the future, the Big SAR and advanced EOTS are the things we have to have on the sensor side,” says Carlisle, who spoke at an Air Force Association even in Washington, DC, this week. “The Big SAR radar can’t afford to move, and we’ve got to get to that advanced capability on the EOTS. Those are two that are kind of in the lurch right now. I’ll tell you, the advanced capability on the EOTS is one we’re working hard on.”

In 2007, Flight International magazine reported that the Big SAR capability was originally approved to be introduced in Block 3, which enters service next year. But that capability was delayed to at least Block 4.

The Pentagon is deciding what new weapons and capabilities will be integrated with the fifth-generation aircraft beyond those planned for the Block 3F configuration, which represents the “full warfighting capability.”

Those improved capabilities will be rolled out in Block 4, which will be delivered in cycles through the early 2020s.

The air force is also keeping an eye on software issues discovered during testing, namely the fusion of information from the aircraft’s sensor suite. “It’s one of the things we’re working hard on a making some progress, but we’ve got a ways to go,” Carlisle says.

For weapons, he places a premium on the integration of Raytheon’s Small Diameter Bomb II and delivery of more advanced air-to-air combat weapon systems beyond the AIM-120C Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile being integrated in earlier configurations.

Carlisle says improved air-to-air capabilities are vitally important since the air force did not buy enough F-22 Raptor air superiority jets. The air force currently has 180 Raptors, significantly fewer than the original plan calling for buying 750. He says it is simply a capacity issue.

“Probably one of the greatest mistakes made was the lack of more F-22s,” he says of the decision to end Raptor production early.

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