Stealth vs Firepower? Packing More Air-to Air Missiles on US and Japanese Jet Fighters

Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II built in 2017 / Photo by Falcon® Photography via (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/) Flickr

The world-famous Lockheed Martin F-35 fifth generation jet fighter is a stealthy, extremely long-range sensor-loaded beast, but when it comes to firepower, it is lacking. In order to maintain its high stealth characteristics, the F-35 carries its weapons internally, and is currently limited to only four AIM-120 air-to-air missiles.

In comparison the stealth F-22 Raptor carries eight missiles internally – double the F-35’s number. The F-35’s relatively small weapons load while flying stealth is one of its biggest limitations.

Meanwhile, older, non-stealthy Russian and Chinese fighters can carry a dozen or more air-to-air missiles. Russia’s Su-57 stealth fighter and China’s J-20 stealth fighter can reportedly pack six missiles in their internal bays.

This is one reason the Air Force opted for buying upgraded Boeing F-15EXs to essentially employ as missile trucks, along with ongoing purchases of F-35s, even though both will cost about the same, at $100 million each.

The F-15EX could, in theory, carry up to 22 missiles, according to Boeing test pilot Matt Geise, but that would degrade the plane’s capabilities far too much. Still, even with a much smaller missile load, an F-15EX easily could carry twice or three times as many missiles as an F-35 can.

David Axe notes that: “The Air Force in 2020 is acquiring the first eight of up to 144 F-15EX. The service already operates around 200 F-35As and has been buying additional copies at a rate of around 50 per year.”

This is also why Japanese defense minister Taro Kono has said the country’s next fighter aircraft must carry more air-to-air missiles than the current F-35s can, writes Axe, adding: “We will emphasize network functions and demand high stealth performance, Kono told reporters. “It will carry more missiles than the F-35.”

The National Interest explains that:

If Japan wants its new F-3 fighter to carry more missiles, it will need to develop a stealth fighter with a layout similar to the F-22 or acquire a non-stealthy plane in a similar class as the F-15EX.

Not coincidentally, Lockheed has proposed to co-develop with Japanese industry an F-3 design that combines the airframe of the F-22 stealth fighter with the F-35’s sensors and electronics. But it’s worth noting that Japan already operates around 200 older F-15Js.

While Tokyo mulls its options, Lockheed is trying to squeeze more missiles into the F-35’s bays. “With internal research and development over the last several years,

Lockheed Martin has matured design concepts to integrate six air-to-air missiles within the internal weapons bays of the F-35A and F-35C variants,” company spokesman Michael Friedman told Breaking Defense.

Friedman added: “This effort allows further enhancement of the F-35’s lethality and survivability by increasing internal weapons capacity by two additional missiles while remaining in very-low-observable stealth configuration.”

Whichever way Japan decides to move forward, what is clear is that both the U.S. and Japan need to, and plan on, adding fighters with lots more missiles. ADN

Paul Crespo is the Managing Editor of American Defense News. A defense and national security expert, he served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. Paul holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. He is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and President of the Center for American Defense Studies, a national security think tank.

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ROBERT POWELL
ROBERT POWELL
1 month ago

remember, the F104 CARRIED 2 SIDEWINDERS and a cannon, we have evolved into modern extremely fast, sealthy’electronic overloaded platforms that think for themselves, can take way more gee-force than the human can even with a g-suit.you could buy the entire factory in 1960’s money for the price of one F35. quit feeding china with our secret plans, blueprints and electronic advances.and QUIT TEASING THE BEAR IN RUSSIA…

William Bailey
William Bailey
1 month ago

Don’t we ever have any military secrets any more? What ever we develop, a year later the Chinese and Russia comes up with its equal.


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