US restrictions on the F-35 fighter jet's targeting system will make it “almost impossible” for training to be carried out in the UK, the Ministry of Defence fears – but its press office insists the constraints are normal.
The F-35's electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) includes a target designator laser and a laser rangefinder.
According to the Defence Ranges Safety Committee, the F-35 has only been cleared to use the designator laser “in the US under very tight controls”.
These include a ban on any optic devices being within 33km of the aircraft when the designator is switched on, and no observers being allowed within 9km of an F-35 operating its designator laser.
“If these restrictions stand, then training in the UK will be almost impossible,” an MoD civil servant wrote. The MoD's F-35 project team are said to be “in discussion” with the US to have the restrictions “reviewed”.
An RAF officer told El Reg that the restrictions are normal on new equipment in its trials phase and will probably be eased as the F-35 trials programme continues. Similar laser EOTS systems are fitted to the Typhoon and Tornado, aircraft with many years of RAF service between them.
Training areas where the EOTS could be safely used in spite of the restrictions include RAF Spadeadam in Cumbria, Otterburn Training Area, and existing designated air combat areas off the coasts of Scotland and Wales.
Two years ago a US F-35B used its EOTS to drop a 500lb laser-guided bomb on a tank on a US bombing range.
The EOTS clearly works as intended, but whether an overly risk-averse approach by the Americans or another, undisclosed factor led to the severe restrictions being noted in May this year remains to be seen.
Manufactured by Italian firm Selex ES, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Finmeccanica (which recently, and completely incomprehensibly, rebranded itself as “Leonardo”), the F-35's lasers allow the aircraft's pilot to carry out precision ranging and targeting functions, according to a Selex press release. 165 of the lasers were built in Edinburgh by Selex, while 200 complete EOTS systems had reportedly been delivered to the F-35 assembly plant by February this year.
Lockheed Martin builds the complete EOTS unit, which combines forward-looking infra-red sensors, the laser targeting and designator systems, as well as offering target tracking and high-resolution imaging functions. The F-35 itself is Link 16 compatible, meaning it can send and receive data from other top-end NATO military equipment such as other fighting aircraft, warships and ground command centres. ®