The F-35, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, is the most expensive weapons program in the history of the United States. President Donald Trump has publicly praised the fighter jet for being “invisible.”
“It’s hard to fight a plane you can’t see,” the President said.
On July 23, 2018, though, the flight path of an F-35 taking off from Nevatim Air Force Base in Israel was very visible to the general public on Flightradar24.com. Anyone online at the time could track the F-35’s progress in real time.
The Flightradar24 site claims that they are the largest ADS-B network in the world. They claim to have over 17,000 connected receivers. To be fair, the plane likely had it’s transponder on and was not conducting operations where stealth was needed. Had the aircraft wanted to be hidden, it’s design and available technology would have likely been capable of doing so. However, there is some irony in the situation.
ADS-B is the way Air Traffic Controllers are tracking airplanes. ADS-B uses GPS to report their location to the network. This allows pilots to see all of the air traffic around them.
The FAA completed the ADS-B network in the United States in 2014. The technology is mandatory for most aircraft in the world by 2020.
Flightradar24 uses ADS-B connected to receivers to track over 150,000 flights per day and claims to be used by most major airlines plus other major airline industry players like Boeing, Airbus and Embraer.
Anyone with an internet connection and a web browser or a smartphone app can watch the real-time aircraft’s flight paths.
The F-35 was designed to have a low radar cross-section. It is made with special radar-absorbing materials that greatly reduce the signals reflected off of the plane. This is supposed to give the plane a radar signature the size of a bird.
This allows the F-35 to fly in high threat areas without worrying about surface-to-air missiles. The F-117 and the B-2 bomber are made of similar materials. As of 2014, only one of those planes had been shot down in 30 years of use.
Other countries, like China, are upgrading their defense systems to take these new radar-evading capabilities into account. There have also been secrets about the stealth technology stolen through espionage. One of the creators of the B-2 bomber was convicted of passing classified information to China and other countries. So the improved systems being developed by other countries will take into account the secrets of the stealth technology and reduce its effectiveness.
The F-35 also contains special radar-jamming technology which protects it from Russian anti-aircraft systems that use radar to lock onto a target. The EA-18G Growler uses technology that emits more frequencies, protecting it and the planes around it from a wider variety of anti-aircraft systems.
Some critics of the F-35 program have been calling for an end to its development. They state that the current environment does not match the assumptions that were made when the development of the plane began. These critics feel that the F-35 is not capable of performing the missions for which it is being purchased.
The F-35 comes in three versions – the F-35A (a conventional takeoff and landing design), the F-35B (a short takeoff/vertical landing design) and the F-35C (a carrier design). The three different variants use common parts which allow for the military to save money through efficiencies of scale while still allowing for multiple basing requirements.
According to the Lockheed Martin web site, the F-35 had unparalleled stealth capabilities making it “virtually undetectable to enemy radar.” That might be true, but they apparently aren’t able to hide from anyone who looks for them online.