Joint Strike Fighter ushers in a new generation of avionics subsystems and technology

Dec. 1, 2001
The future Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) will include a dizzying array of advanced electronic and opto-electronic sensors, computers, and communications

By John Keller

FORT WORTH, Texas — The future Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) will include a dizzying array of advanced electronic and opto-electronic sensors, computers, and communications that will enable F-35 pilots to see through weather, darkness, and even the aircraft fuselage itself.

The potential $200 billion program to build the F-35 promises to be a financial windfall to the winning prime contractor, Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems of Fort Worth, Texas, and its electronics subcontractors. Northrop Grumman Corp. of Los Angeles is in charge of electronic systems integration.

The list of Lockheed Martin's electronic subsystems suppliers reads like a who's who of U.S. and international defense electronics companies whose engineers are set to design what promises to be the world's most technologically advanced jet fighter. Three variants of the JSF are planned — a land-based aircraft, a conventional aircraft carrier-based aircraft, and a vertical- and short-takeoff aircraft.

Among the most notable of the planned JSF subsystems are its sensors, which revolve around sophisticated radar and infrared arrays.

The JSF's Distributed Aperture System, to be built at the Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems Division in Baltimore, consists of six staring infrared focal plane arrays located around the aircraft, says Peter Shaw, the JSF mission systems team leader at Northrop Grumman in Fort Worth, Texas.

These imaging sensors are arranged to give complete spherical coverage around the jet to alert the pilot to the presence of other aircraft or incoming missile threats, Shaw says. The pilot also can slave Distributed Aperture System images to his helmet-mounted display so that he can essentially "see through" the aircraft and view the outside at any angle.

This ability can help the pilot land in poor visibility, and can give him a "virtual rear-view mirror" for use in air combat maneuvering or bomb damage assessment, Shaw says.

The F-35's other electro-optical device is its infrared targeting system, which comes from Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control - Orlando in Orlando, Fla. This subsystem provides infrared search-and-track capability — better known as IRST — and provides laser-ranging designation, Shaw says.

This subsystem, which uses a sensor mounted to the bottom of the aircraft behind the radar array, also can gather images from the ground for targeting weapons or for reconnaissance.

Another component of the F-35's sensor suite is the electronically scanned phased-array radar from the Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems division in Baltimore. This radar system has full air-to-air, and air-to-ground capabilities and includes "every radar mode imaginable used by tactical aircraft," Shaw says.

Northrop Grumman radar systems designers are paying particular attention to affordability by using technology already developed for the Lockheed Martin F-22 advanced tactical fighter and the Joint Surveillance Northrop Grumman Target Attack Radar System — better known as Joint STARS, Shaw says. "The origins of the technology came from the F-22 and Joint STARS, and we have brought it to a new generation," he says.

The F-35 cockpit display supplier is Kaiser Electronics in San Jose, Calif. Kaiser engineers are providing two 8-by-10-inch displays, which use projection technology rather than liquid crystal display (LCD) glass, which will work together as one 8-by-20-inch display, Shaw says. The display is a touch-screen "with a lot of software built into it," Shaw says. "The pilot controls a lot of how to manage the system from the display, such as using it as portals he can select, expand them, go down to various levels to manage different subsystems," he says.

Systems integrators chose projection displays rather than LCDs because on projection displays "side-by-side you can't tell the difference with LCD," Shaw says. "It has direct sunlight readability, and you can expand the display to any size you want. LCDs are driven by commercial technology, and with commercial technology whatever commercial customers go with is the size you get."

The F-35 pilot's helmet-mounted display is from Vision Systems International (VSI) in San Jose, Calif., which is a joint venture of Kaiser and Elbit Systems of Haifa, Israel. This display projects various images onto the pilot's helmet visor, such as sensor images, cockpit symbology, or targeting information. The pilot can slave the helmet displays to aircraft sensors to get spherical visual coverage all around the aircraft. The pilot also can slave the helmet display to the aircraft weapons so he can aim weapons simply by looking at the targets, Shaw says.

In addition, the helmet-mounted display replaces the conventional head-up display in the cockpits of most modern jet fighters, he says. Not only does the display have imagery, but it also offers audio cues to the pilot, and enables the pilot to give voice commands to aircraft systems.

The F-35 also will have an integrated communications system that blends voice and data communications, navigational systems, and identification-friend-or-foe systems, Shaw says. Providing the integrated communications/navigation/identification (CNI) system are engineers at two companies — TRW Avionics and Surveillance Systems in San Diego, and Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This system will handle all aircraft communications, data links, navigation, and identification and interrogator transponders.

Linking all flight- and mission-critical electronics aboard the F-35 will be the 1-gigabit-per-second Fibrechannel optical data bus.

Providing so-called "common avionics components," such as integrated electronics racks with module building blocks, as well as connectors for all radio-frequency sensors and data processors are engineers at the Harris Government Communications Systems Division in Palm Bay, Fla. Harris "will integrate backplanes from each supplier into their racks," Shaw explains. "The backplane data bus is dictated by each sensor provider, yet we are using standard 6U-format printed circuit cards. There is no SEM-E module on the airplane, and no flow-through cooling. Everything is edge-cooled liquid cooling."

Harris experts also are providing sensor-fusion software for a variety of tasks aboard the F-35, particularly for blending sensor data into easily understandable graphic representations on a moving-map display, Shaw says.

The integrated core processor aboard the JSF has two primary parts — the general-purpose processor from Lockheed Martin Systems Integration in Owego, N.Y., and the signal processor from Raytheon Electronic Systems in El Segundo, Calif. Together these systems will process information from aircraft sensors, weapons, flight information, displays, and other vital subsystems. Also part of the integrated core processor is a power supply, switched module, and remote I/O module to handle 1553 data bus communications and other legacy elements, Shaw says.

Rounding out the primary avionics components of the F-35 is the aircraft's electronic warfare system, explains John Harrell, team lead for F-35 sensors at Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems in Fort Worth, Texas. This consists of two primary subsystems — the electronic support measures system from Northrop Grumman Advanced Systems in College Park, Md., and the radar warning and electronic countermeasures system from the BAE Systems Information and Electronic Warfare Systems division in Nashua, N.H. Engineers from BAE systems are in charge of overall electronic warfare systems integration, Harrell says.

Joint Strike Fighter electronics suppliers

Cockpit displays:
Kaiser Electronics
San Jose, Calif.

Common avionics components:
Harris Government Communications
Systems Division
Palm Bay, Fla.

identification avionics:
TRW Avionics and SurveillanceSystems
San Diego, Calif.

RockÏÏwell Collins
Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Distributed Aperture System:
Northrop Grumman Electronic
Systems division

Electronic support measures system:
Northrop Grumman Advanced Systems
College Park, Md.

Electronically scanned radar:
Northrop Grumman Electronic
Systems division

Electro-optical targeting system:
Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control — Orlando
Orlando, Fla.

General-purpose processor:
Lockheed Martin Systems
Integration — Owego
Owego, N.Y.

Helmet-mounted display:
Vision Systems International LLC
San Jose, Calif.

Radar warning and electronic countermeasures system:
BAE Systems Information and Electronic Warfare Systems
Nashua, N.H.

Sensor-fusion software:
Harris Government
Communications Systems Division
Palm Bay, Fla.

Signal processor:
Raytheon Electronic Systems
El Segundo, Calif.

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