The F-35 is a jet that’s supposed to be all things to all people, an ever-expanding boondoggle soaking the American taxpayer for billions of dollars. Now, the Pentagon wants to strap new missiles to the F-35 and use it to shoot nukes out of the sky.
As first reported by DefenseNews, the 2019 Missile Defense Review, a briefing on what the Pentagon plans to do to keep America and its allies safe from enemy missiles. The review laid out a wide array of plans, including equipping drones with lasers to shoot missiles out of the sky, “space based sensors and interceptors,” and using the F-35 to to knock out nukes before they can enter the upper atmosphere.
They’re impressive plans that stretch both the laws of physics and the limits of the human imagination. Naturally, President Trump praised the missile plans in a speech to the Pentagon on January 17.
“Our goal is simple—to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, any time, any place,” the President said.
A lot of the plans included in the 2019 Missile Defense Review are a new spin on old schemes first attempted by President Ronald Reagan. When he wanted to put lasers in space, he called it Star Wars.
Defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) requires weapon systems that detect the launch of the nukes, then knock them out of the air during the boost phase—when rocket boosters are shooting the missile into space, before coming back down to Earth. It’s at this stage that the ICBM is slowest and most vulnerable.
Additional sensors in space to detect nuke launches aren’t a terrible idea, especially with—as the Pentagon noted in the report—the possibility that North Korea will have a functioning nuke in the near future. But America already has robust weapon systems in place across the globe, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, that are designed to knock missiles out of the sky before they reach their target.
But, still, the Pentagon wants laser drones and F-35s to augment existing missile defenses. It imagines that, in the future, the F-35 “can be equipped with a new or modified interceptor capable of shooting down adversary ballistic missiles in their boost phase.”
This is an incredibly impractical plan. It’s one of those things that’s technically possible, but a practical crapshoot.
For an F-35 to shoot down an ICBM, it’d first need to know where the launch is coming from. Advance knowledge of the launch would help, but ICBMs are most vulnerable and visible during their boost phase. They’re slowest after they first launch, but that speed is still an incredible 6.5km a second.
“An ICBM is accelerating (fast) on the way up, [so] you have to be close enough to avoid a tail chase,” Reuters News Editor Gerry Doyle explained on Twitter. “Your interceptor has to have enough energy to get up and make the kill. So it’s big and you have to have enough advance notice of the launch to be in position when it happens. And you have to avoid getting shot down before launch.”
The F-35 is a stealth jet, but the stealth only works when it’s not carrying munitions on the outside. It has an internal carrying capacity, but none of the pockets on its current designs are big enough to haul a hypothetical ICBM killer.
“Boost-phase missile defense—whether kinetic or directed energy, and whether based on land, sea, air, or in space—is not practical or feasible,” a 2012 report from the National Academy of Sciences said.
A successful interception would also need to happen in an incredibly narrow window of a few minutes, in enemy territory, and with the pilot making all the right moves.
These problems would be similar for any laser-equipped drones. The drone would need a powerful laser to fell an ICBM, but at least it wouldn’t put an American pilot on the firing line.
The point is that much of these plans are fantasies, much like the F-35 itself. The jet is estimated to cost more than $1 trillion over the course of its life cycle, and is supposed to be all things to all military branches. The Marine’s F-35B can do vertical take-off and landing. The Air Force’s base model F-35A doesn’t. The Navy’s F-35C is a carrier-friendly jet with a wider wingspan and greater fuel capacity.
The plan to shoot nukes out of the sky with F-35s relies on the image of a hotshot fighter pilot going toe-to-toe with a nuclear missile and blasting it out of the sky. It’s likely an impossible dream, and similar projects in the past faltered when the Pentagon realized they would cost billions of dollars in research, development, and training to accomplish.
A huge waste of time and taxpayer money.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.