F-35s Were Carrying Live AIM-120 Missiles During Show Of Force Training Flight Over Korea

The Pentagon may be attempting to send a message to North Korean intelligence analysts via photos released from the mission. 

Cpl. Aaron Henson

Another day another high-profile photo-op "deterrence" flight over the Korean Peninsula, and it was an impressive one at that. Two B-1Bs, four F-15Ks, four F-2s, and four F-35Bs took part in the mission. We have talked in great detail how these flights have become useless bordering on counter productive, but one peculiar detail of this particular mission may be a signal from the Pentagon to Pyongyang that these elaborate missions are no longer just about showing off force, they are now also about being able to use that force suddenly. 

While the quartet of F-35Bs from VMFA-121 taxied out for departure from MCAS Iwakuni, their weapons bay doors were left open—at least until it was time to take the active runway for takeoff. Multiple images were posted of this evolution by the Pentagon and you can clearly see AIM-120 medium-range air-to-air missiles hanging onto their hard points on the inner sections of the F-35B's weapons bay doors. One image in particular (seen above) caught our eye as it offers up an interesting tidbit of information about these missiles—they aren't captive training rounds, they are live. 

USAF

You can tell a live munition from an inert one by the bands painted on the munition's body. Blue bands mean the weapon isn't live while orange and yellow bands mean that it's a real live round. This is an interesting development because these F-35Bs are on a thoroughly planned training mission, not one that involves actual combat. And although they will be dropping live 1,000lb GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munitions—each can carry two internally, the largest weapon that will fit in the B model's truncated weapons bay—there should be no need to carry live air-to-air missiles as well. 

USAF

What appears to be happening here is that the Pentagon is trying to deliberately signal to North Korea that these training flights can go "operational" at any moment if commanded to do so. Also note that none of the other fighters, including the RoKAF F-15Ks, are armed with live air-to-air missiles, or any air-to-air missiles at all for that matter.

The F-35 is especially sensitive to thermal stress, so maybe taxiing with the bay doors open is some sort of mitigation procedure when operating in warm climates—albeit doing so with a 3,000lbs of live weapons stuffed in its low-slung bays seems a bit odd. But still, it seems like extra effort was put into publishing photos showing the missiles on the aircraft prior to their departure from MCAS Iwakuni.  

Regardless, the fact remains—the F-35s were armed with live air-to-air missiles along with the live GPS guided bombs. But the roughly $20,000 bombs were meant to be dropped in training, the missiles weren't. 

USAF

Additionally, it's not common for tactical aircraft to fly live-fire air-to-ground or air-to-air training missions with all live weapons. Usually just one category or the other—the one that is meant to be expended—is live. Not in this case. 

Making things even stranger is the fact that the F-35Bs were all wearing their radar reflective Luneburg Lenses which totally zap the stealth jet's radar evading qualities. These cannot be jettisoned in flight, so if the F-35s were really called upon to punch into North Korean airspace on the fly they would be doing so without their most lauded advantage. 

USAF

Call it a micro-escalation of sorts, but it seems pretty clear that Washington wants Pyongyang to know that these flights are turning into something more than just elaborate and expensive reminders of what aircraft the U.S. and its regional allies have in their inventories. With extremely limited non-kinetic military options left, the relatively subtle escalation does make sense. 

Here is the full series of images that were released. There are some spectacular shots in there to say the least. 

Update

So it turns out the F-35B has restrictions on how long its bays can remain closed with weapons in them while on the ground in warm weather. As noted in the piece, I had a feeling this could be the case. The issue was mentioned in the 2015 DOT&E annual report on the F-35 program. It appears that the problem still exists. It remains unclear how this impacted the publishing of the photos specifically showing the live AIM-120s loaded, but once again, the main takeaway is that they are there in the first place. 

2015 DOT&E Report

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com