In 2014, the Daily Beast ran a damning article claiming that the F-35’s ground attack capabilities were inferior to those of older-generation fighter jets such as the F-16. The article’s criticism centered around the F-35’s Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS), a sensor complex housed beneath the aircraft’s nose and designed as a stealthy alternative to external sensor pods. The EOTS shortcomings cited included poor resolution and range, lack of an infrared pointer, and an inability to downlink video to troops on the ground. These allegations are accurate — the F-35’s EOTS lags behind contemporary external sensor pods in many areas because it was designed at the F-35 program’s inception over a decade ago.
In response, Jalopnik wrote a piece largely concurring with the conclusions of the Daily Beast but reminding readers that an up-to-date targeting pod can still be used by the F-35 for missions where low-observability is not a high concern. Thus, the Daily Beast’s claim that the F-35 is worse in the close air support role than its predecessors is highly misleading, as the F-35 can mount the exact same equipment that previous-gen fighters use. Only when configured for stealth is the F-35 limited to using the EOTS, and previous-generation fighters cannot be made stealthy at all.
Furthermore, the Daily Beast’s article implied that the problems with the F-35’s EOTS would not be rectifiable, with an anonymous expert supplying the following remark: “[T]he F-35 EOTS does not have and will not get an IR [infrared] marker . . . [i]t won’t fit in the space available.” Both articles concluded that the F-35 would be stuck with its current EOTS for the foreseeable future and that an upgrade would be an arduous affair.
In comes Advanced EOTS
Despite claims that adding higher-performance sensors and an infrared pointer to the F-35’s EOTS would be impossible given the space and power constraints, Lockheed Martin announced in 2015 that it had begun development on an Advanced EOTS which shares many parts with the original EOTS and fits in the same footprint. Among the upgrades offered by Advanced EOTS are short-wave infrared imaging, high-definition television feed, improved range+resolution and an infrared pointer. In other words, every concern expressed in the Daily Beast article (save for video downlink, which may be addressed by other upgrades to the F-35’s comms) would be rectified by the adoption of Advanced EOTS.
While adding short-wave infrared and TV capability would require corresponding additions to the F-35’s software package, the Advanced EOTS requires no modification to the airframe itself and even utilizes the same low-observable window as the original EOTS. In fact, EOTS and Advanced EOTS are so similar that Lockheed Martin will be able to produce Advanced EOTS from the same production line as the original. Advanced EOTS is not part of a program of record as of yet — Lockheed Martin plans to pitch it as part of the Block IV project, which will begin in 2019. Details regarding Advanced EOTS’ progress are sparse, but Flight Global reported in March 2016 that a prototype would be flying soon, a schedule which aligns with Lockheed’s original aim to conduct flight testing around 2017-2018.
Of course, it is maddening that the original EOTS is obsolete on arrival — ideally, the development process would be streamlined to prevent situations where aircraft needed an upgrade shortly after entering service. Nevertheless, many of the original claims that the F-35 was permanently doomed to offer sub-par ground attack capabilities because of its EOTS were clearly overblown in retrospect.