The F-35, the most expensive weapons system in history that boosters say can do just about anything in aerial combat, could have a new mission: shooting down intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Ballistic missiles, like the kind North Korea has been perfecting with the goal of being able to reach the US with a nuclear warhead, pose a huge threat to the US as they reenter the atmosphere at over a dozen times the speed of sound.
The US uses advanced radars and ground-based missile interceptors without explosive charges to “hit to kill” incoming missiles. This method has been compared to hitting a bullet with a bullet, and it has really only been successful against unsophisticated, short-range targets or test dummies.
But there’s plenty of reason to doubt the US’s missile defenses against North Korea would work. And advanced ICBMs with multiple warheads or decoy warheads could most likely confuse missile defenses and render them useless.
But as an ICBM takes off the launchpad and lurches up to speed, the entire missile, warhead and all, is a single target.
At that point, why not shoot it down with an air-to-air missile from an F-35?
The F-35 as a missile interceptor
The US Air Force has for decades had air-to-air missiles that lock on to hot, flying targets, and an ICBM in its first stage is essentially that.
In 2007, Lockheed Martin got $3 million to look into an air-to-air hit-to-kill missile system. In 2014, a test seemed to prove the concept.
But the F-35 program, usually not one to shy away from boasting about its achievements, has been hushed about the prospect of using it to defeat one of the gravest threats to the US.
An F-35 missile intercept over North Korea may be an act of war
The present crisis with North Korea may demand some expediency from the Pentagon regarding the F-35.
The F-35, with its all-aspect stealth, is ideal for breaking into North Korea’s protected airspace. It can already use the air-to-air missile in question, and its sensor fusion would make it the best plane for the job.
The drawback, though, is that the F-35 would need to get close to the target missile as it’s leaving the launchpad, which could mean firing interceptor missiles over enemy territory — something North Korea could see as an act of war.
If North Korea were to actually threaten the US or its allies with a missile, an F-35 intercept could be a game-changer. The US reportedly knew about North Korea’s latest launch three days in advance, despite the North’s efforts to hide preparations. In a similar situation, the US would have plenty of time to get the F-35s in place.
Read more: businessinsider