The F-35A Is Set To Finally Get Chaff Countermeasures To Confuse Enemy Radars
These cartridges full of radar-reflecting material have been curiously absent from the stealthy fighter's already highly capable defense suite.
U.S. Air Force is hoping to integrate a new, advanced chaff countermeasure onto its F-35A Joint Strike Fighters next year, according to a report. The cartridges, which release radar reflective material to blind and confuse enemy aircraft and air defenses, are a staple across many of the service's other combat aircraft, but have been curiously absent from the stealthy F-35's otherwise extensive defensive suite.
Aviation Week's Defense Editor Steve Trimble, a good friend of The War Zone, was first to spot the detail on Sept. 9, 2019. The Air Force included the information about the new chaff cartridge, known presently as the ARM-210, in a draft environmental impact statement, dated August 2019, regarding the basing of F-35s at various Air National Guard facilities. The report includes a host of information on how the aircraft might impact their surrounding environments, including the potential release of countermeasures, such as infrared decoy flares and chaff.
"The ARM-210 chaff proposed for use by the F-35A is currently unavailable and undergoing operational testing," according to the environmental review. "It is expected to be available for use in 2020."
It is unclear whether this applies to the U.S. Marine Corps F-35B or U.S. Navy F-35C variants, as well, or any of the three variants in service with foreign air forces. The F-35's use or potential use of chaff has long been something of a debate, in general. Recent U.S. military budget documents and other sources make no mention of it among the aircraft's expendable countermeasures – flares and towed decoys – which had suggested that it was, indeed, a capability the Joint Strike Fighter lacked and might not necessarily have needed given its stealthy design.
However, F-35 simulators have included the ability to replicate this functionality, according to Trimble. He also noted that a briefing in 2018 from U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Mathias Winter, then head of the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO), had included a reference to "advanced chaff" as being part of the still-in-development Block 4 upgrades for the Joint Strike Fighters.
The ongoing testing of the ARM-210 now confirms that at least the Air Force plans to integrate chaff into its F-35As in the near future. This cartridge's specifications, and how it differs from RR-180 and RR-188 types the service already has as a countermeasure option for other combat aircraft, is unclear.
"ARM-210 chaff is similar to the RR-180 and RR-188 chaff currently in use by the F-16, F-15, and A-10 aircraft proposed for replacement [with the F-35]," the environmental impact report says, without offering any other details. "A bundle of chaff consists of approximately 5 to 5.6 million fibers that are cut to reflect radar signals, and when dispensed from aircraft, form an electronic 'cloud' that breaks the radar signal and temporarily hides the maneuvering aircraft from radar detection," it says more generally.
Chaff, which dates back to World War II, originally consisted of aluminum strips cut to various lengths. More modern examples, use metallicized synthetic fibers, which help them hang in the air longer, offering more persistent effects. The Armtec RR-188, for example, uses bundles of aluminum-coated silica fibers. There have been a number of chaff releases within the United States in the past few years as part of training exercises that have highlighted just how long-lasting and far-ranging the clouds can become depending on release altitude and environmental factors. The size and composition of the fibers are directly connected to what radar bands the chaff affects, which can make them particularly effective against specific threats.
The ARM-210 designation would suggest that the new cartridge is another Armtec product. The company, a division of Esterline, which is now itself a subsidiary of TransDigm Group, uses this nomenclature internally for its countermeasure products, which include both chaff and flares.
Armtec's RR-180s and -188s are already significant improvements over the older RR-170-series. These newer cartridges fit into the same one-inch-by-one-inch slots in U.S. military countermeasures dispensers, but hold two self-contained chaff payloads that fire separately. Each one provides the same level of defense as a single RR-170.
What this means is that the RR-180s and -188s effectively double the amount of chaff an aircraft can carry in the same dispenser. The exact construction of the chaff payload in the ARM-210 could be even more effective and long-lasting.
At the same time, a 2014 brochure from Esterline interestingly says that the company offered "Specialized tactical and training variants developed for F-22 and F-35 platforms." It's not clear whether this meant that the Air Force and other F-35 operators had intended to employ RR-180s or -188s on their jets or if the ARM-210 has been in development at least that long.
So, it is possible that differences between the ARM-210 and its predecessors have to do more with the location and configuration of the F-35's internally-mounted countermeasures dispenser than with the payload itself. This could have precluded the jets from effectively releasing the existing cartridges.
It's also unclear then if the ARM-210 is the planned "advanced chaff" that Vice Admiral Winter had mentioned in 2018 or an interim development to ensure the F-35 has this capability in the near term. The Block 4 upgrades are still years away from getting implemented across the U.S. military's Joint Strike Fighter fleets.
Still, whatever the ARM-210's exact capabilities are, it will certainly add another important tool in the F-35's defensive toolbox. As The War Zone has explored in-depth in the past, the Joint Strike Fighter's stealthy capabilities do not obviate the need for additional countermeasures, including flares, decoys, and electronic warfare systems.
In particular, many stealthy fighter aircraft, such as the F-35, have designs where the front aspects of the aircraft are best optimized to hide from high-frequency fire control radars. In extremely broad terms, they are less capable of evading lower frequency radars or when flying away from a radar of any kind.
This reality already underscores the value of towed decoys, especially for when the aircraft exit the target area after their mission. It also highlights how it would be valuable for the jets to be able to create their own electronic smokescreen using chaff plumes. Those same chaff clouds could help give F-35s additional protection and freedom of maneuver during extended engagements, especially when it is carrying weapons externally in a non-stealthy configuration.
Of course, chaff isn't impenetrable, either, and the F-35's ability to employ the ARM-210 will not replace any of the jet's other extensive defensive features, including advanced towed decoys, which you can read about more in this past War Zone piece. But, with potential adversaries continually working to improve their air defenses constantly, stealthy aircraft such as the Joint Strike Fighter will face ever more threatening environments that will demand a broad mixture of defensive capabilities to ensure they can successfully complete their missions.
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