Security

F-35s, upgraded Tomahawks bring new capabilities to US strike group

By Al-Mashareq

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An F-35C Lightning II deployed from the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group takes part in an exercise in the Pacific Ocean on August 27. [US Navy]

The USS Carl Vinson, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, entered the South China Sea on Tuesday (September 7), deployed with the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter aboard for the first time.

Accompanied by the latest version of the Tomahawk cruise missile, the deployment marks a major upgrade for the carrier strike group in terms of being able to hit moving targets at standoff distances never before achieved.

These capabilities will enable both the United States and its allies to secure their interests around the globe.

The Carl Vinson carrier strike group departed San Diego August 2 for the western Pacific and arrived at Yokosuka, Japan, on August 28 for a scheduled port visit, USNI News reported.

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An F-35C Lightning II flies off the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson on August 27. [US Navy]

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A Tomahawk cruise missile launches from the guided-missile destroyer USS Shoup during a live-fire exercise in the Pacific Ocean September 18, 2018. [US Navy]

The carrier has a notable combat record and was deployed during several operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since the 1990s.

Like other carriers in her class, the Carl Vinson can carry more than 65 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, and can travel more than 5,000 nautical miles in less than seven days.

However, it is the only carrier equipped to support both the F-35C Lightning II jet fighter and the new CMV-22 Osprey aircraft, the National Interest reported in April.

Upgrades completed last year included enhanced jet blast deflectors able to take the increased heat generated by the F-35C.

The vessel was also equipped with the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), the new computer network that supports the unique maintenance and tactical operations functions of the advanced aircraft.

The Carl Vinson last September completed several certifications for the F-35C, including flight deck certification (FDC) and carrier air traffic control centre (CATCC) certification.

And in March, the US Navy successfully conducted a "proof-of-concept" logistics exercise that highlighted how a deployed carrier could still receive critical parts needed to maintain F-35C aircraft.

The carrier set sail in August with 10 F-35Cs, and a larger-than-normal contingent of other aircraft, Rear Adm. Dan Martin, the commander of the Vinson strike group, told Defense News in an August 4 interview.

"We're bringing more capability, we're bringing more quantity, and we figured out just through training and analysation [sic] of our tactics and techniques and procedures that this is the right amount: this is the right amount of air crew, the right amount of airframes."

New capabilities

The F-35C is the carrier variant of the Lightning II.

Compared to the other variants, it features a larger wing area for reduced landing speeds and greater fuel capacity, folding wing tips for easier parking and stowage, and beefed-up undercarriage to accommodate the extreme sink-rates of carrier landings, as well as a catapult launch-bar on the nosegear and a rugged arrestor hook for recovery, Janes reported August 6.

The fifth-generation fighter has a top speed of Mach 1.6 (1.6 times the speed of sound) and a combat range of 1,410km.

The F-35 also has a "beast mode" -- when weapons are carried on the wing-mounted pylons as well as inside the internal bay -- that nearly quadruples the amount of ordnance it can carry.

In addition to its own ordnance, the plane augments the capacities of other weapon systems, creating a constellation of firepower.

One partner of the F-35 is the Aegis Combat System, an integrated naval weapons system that uses computer and radar to guide various weapons to strike targets.

The F-35's contribution to the Aegis is to extend the radius of detectable targets by providing stealth missions deep into enemy territory. Alternatively, the F-35, when equipped properly, can conduct bombing missions to support an Aegis-directed onslaught.

Upgraded cruise missiles

The F-35, besides being an invaluable auxiliary to an Aegis system, adds to the power and reach of Tomahawk cruise missiles.

The US military feeds the Tomahawk with data from a variety of sources: aircraft, drones, satellites, troops, tanks and ships. Those aircraft include the F-35, which can identify targets on a stealth mission.

The Tomahawk missiles themselves have also been upgraded.

The US Navy in March received its first batch of Block V Tomahawk missiles, which are expected to hit surface ships at ranges in excess of 1,600km.

The new version of the missiles include upgraded communications and navigation systems that make it more survivable by making it tougher to counter and detect electronically.

The Block Va variant, also known as the Maritime Strike Tomahawk (MST), meanwhile will add to those upgrades to enable the missile to engage moving targets at sea.

Another variant, the Block Vb, or the Joint Multiple Effects Warhead System (JMEWS), is designed with a new payload with a more-penetrating warhead.

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