As the US military begins deploying the F-35, which brings with it the promise of revolutionizing aerial combat, it may also be deploying a ballistic-missile defense asset.
US jet fighters have spent decades trying to master the air-to-air kill. In the days of "Top Gun" and the F-14 Tomcat, that meant turning dogfights, with a mix of guns and missiles to outfox the other pilot.
But today a new threat has taken aim at the US, and it's more dangerous than any fighter jet.
As North Korea works toward building out its missile technology to put the US mainland in range of its nuclear arsenal, the F-35's new air target may be a missile, not a fighter.
According to Justin Bronk, an expert on aerial combat at the Royal United Services Institute, the missiles already aboard the F-35 just need a slight tweak to start taking on missiles.
"By changing the firmware a bit, tweaking it a bit, you could gain a theoretical" capability to engage ballistic missiles, Bronk told Business Insider.
A source involved in ballistic-missile defense at the Pentagon confirmed Bronk's statement. Basically, the F-35 and its AIM-120 air-to-air missile stand a few wires away from potentially being able to disrupt North Korea's next missile test, but there's a catch.
An F-35 Lightning II assigned to Hill Air Force Base, Utah, flies alongside a 100th Air Refueling Wing KC-135 Stratotanker during a flight to Estonia on April 25, 2017. The F-35s are participating in their first-ever flying training deployment to Europe. (U.S. Air Force photo /Senior Airman Christine Groening)
Perhaps the reason the F-35 doesn't already come equipped to shoot down ballistic missiles is that doing so still presents a logistical nightmare.
North Korea often launches from unexpected locations, at strange times, and from mobile launchers. This all adds up to a very unpredictable launch, which an F-35 would have limited time to position itself against.
"You'd have to be impractically close to their launch area," Bronk said. The problem then comes down to the missile itself.
"Given that an AIM-120 burns for seven to nine seconds and then coasts, and a ballistic missile does the opposite, all while climbing," Bronk explained, the F-35 would have to engage the missile from very close.
As a ballistic missile blasts upward, quickly gaining speed, the AIM-120's short burn time means the missile has only precious few seconds to catch its target before slowing down. During those seconds, the ballistic missile only gets higher and faster.
F-35 as the quarterback, not a tackle
An AIM-120 AMRAAM being loaded onto an F-16CJ. | US Air Force
A more likely ballistic-missile defense situation spearheaded by the F-35 could capitalize on what the US military does best: networking complicated systems and getting support from linked assets.
The F-35's AIM-120 is just 12 feet long, undersize for this role. But the US Navy's Arleigh-Burke guided-missile destroyers carry several 21-foot-long interceptor missiles.
The F-35's designers built it to integrate easily with the Navy's targeting system, so the F-35 can find, track, and provide targeting info to missiles fired from ships or even other jets.
"If you had F-35 loitering as close as possible but not in the airspace, with its sensor package is tuned to pick up a ballistic missile's infrared signature," Bronk said, it could function as a "forward part of the warning chain."
This approach would allow the F-35 to stay out of North Korean airspace, which could be seen as an act of war. Instead, the F-35 simply tracks the ballistic missile, and a US Navy destroyer shoots it down.
Perhaps sooner rather than later
Weapons dropped from U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers and U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II practicing attack capabilities impact the Pilsung Range, Republic of Korea. The F-35Bs, assigned to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, conducted a sequenced bilateral mission with South Korean F-15K and Koku Jieitai (Japan Air Self-Defense Force) F-2 fighters. This mission is in direct response to North Korea's intermediate range ballistic missile launch and emphasizes the combined ironclad commitment to regional allies and partners. (Republic of Korea Air Force photo)
The F-35's deployment to Japan and its involvement in the ballistic-missile-defense discussion comes at a time of extreme tensions between the US and North Korea, with both sides reportedly announcing intentions to escalate further.
Last week, sources from President Donald Trump's administration reportedly said they were planning a "bloody nose" attack to damage North Korea's missile program and humiliate the country.
South Korean media reported on Thursday that North Korea may be planning a satellite launch, which looks very much like a missile launch but instead deposits a satellite in space.
In North Korea, missile launches are key propaganda events and vital to the military's research and development. For the US, the F-35 is the most expensive weapons system ever made and one that has yet to deliver on its promise of changing the game in aerial warfare.