The F-35 and the SEAD mission

The F-35 Lightning II is the most advanced node in 21st Century Security: It brings stealth, sensor fusion, and interoperability to enable access in contested environments and enhances situational awareness.

It offers multi-mission capability, including strategic attack, offensive/defensive counter air, anti-surface warfare, strike coordination and reconnaissance, close air support and suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses (SEAD/DEAD).

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The Navy plans to field the AGM-88E Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile (AARGM) as well as the AGM-88G AARGM Extended Range (AARGM-ER), both successors to the HARM anti-radiation missile. The Air Force is considering these weapons, as well.

The ASQ-239 electronic warfare system of the F-35 can passively detect an enemy air defense system’s emissions and geo-locate these targets in concert with the F-35’s other systems.

USAF leaders have said that thanks to its stealthiness, the F-35 will become the main platform for the SEAD/DEAD mission in the coming decade.

The S-400 SAM System radar can detect the F-35 but it can’t target it

US Navy Operations Specialist explains why although the S-400 SAM System radar can detect the F-35 it can’t target it
A US Navy F-35C drops a GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM)

But can radars of advanced air defense systems like the Russian S-400 Surface to Air Missile (SAM) detect the F-35?

‘Sure, they can…they just cannot target it. The F-35 will still be able to attack at will,’ Eric Wicklund, former US Navy Operations Specialist, explains on Quora.

‘It’s like being able to see that a tsunami is coming, but unable to escape it in time. You just know that death is coming sooner.

‘Russia’s Nebo-M radar system, a component part of the S-400, can “see” that F-35s are in the area, but the L-band radar is of such low fidelity, that it cannot direct a weapon at what it sees.

US Navy Operations Specialist explains why although the S-400 SAM System radar can detect the F-35 it can’t target it
Russian Nebo-M radars

‘Stealth aircraft are optimized to be low-observable versus targeting radars in the S, C, X, and Ku radar bands. These are the radar frequencies that can guide weapons to an aerial target. But, until an F-35 gets really close (20 – 30 miles depending on conditions), these radars cannot see the F-35.’

Wicklund concludes;

‘Long before a targeting radar can lock up an F-35, that aircraft has already fired an anti-radiation missile, like the AGM-88 HARM (or a bomb like a JDAM), has already turned around, and is flying home. It no longer makes any difference if the radar operator turns off his machine. Modern radiation-homing missiles “remember” the location and can still engage a non-radiating radar.

‘In the end, seeing is believing, but that won’t stop an F-35.’

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Photo credit: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation and Lockheed Martin photo by Chad Bellay