The F-35 vs. The VHF Threat

The Diplomat // August 21, 2014

The heated and ongoing international debate regarding the combat effectiveness of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) in a highly contested environment has led many observers to question the fighter’s survivability in the face of advanced Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems and very high frequency (VHF) radars. Yet, few have examined the issue closely using lessons drawn from the only incident in which a stealth aircraft was lost in combat; when USAF Lt. Col. Dale Zelko’s F-117 – call sign “Vega 31” – was shot down by a Serbian S-125 (SA-3) SAM system over the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during Operation Allied Force on the night of March 27, 1999.


It is important to remember that the F-35 is no F-117. Designed with network-centric warfare and joint operations in mind, the JSF offers its pilot unprecedented situational awareness thanks to its ability to communicate and process data obtained from a multitude of both onboard sensors and those located on other platforms. Unlike the F-117, which had no radar, the F-35’s powerful AN/APG-81 AESA is also capable of acting as a narrowband jammer that can be employed if necessary against engagement radars once the jet is deep inside enemy territory. These features make the JSF a key “team player”; its capabilities and potential must therefore be viewed in the context of a CEC or collective system rather than as a single platform. 

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Photo by Lockheed Martin.