New Pilot on Navigating F-35 Comms: 'It Is Extremely Simple'

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is one of the most software-intensive mission systems ever built, allowing it to take in, process and display a host of information to its pilot.

It’s given critics a reason to blast the aircraft as a flying computer instead of just an aircraft, giving the pilot more unnecessary tasks if he or she were in battle.

But because of its state-of-the-art design, how a pilot uses, for example, its data communications network is surprisingly simple, an F-35 pilot recently told Military.com

“Operating between the systems is really easy. I don’t have engineers’ understanding of the systems; I couldn’t tell you how to design them, but I can tell you it is extremely simple,” said 1st Lt. Brett Burnside, who recently graduated the Air Force’s B-course at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.

The “B-course,” or the basic flight class, is part of the 61st Fighter Squadron at the base.

For example, the F-35 operates on the F-35’s Multi-Function Advanced Datalink system, or MADL, as well as the legacy Link 16 system, common to many U.S. military platforms.

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“For MADL, all I have to do is set a local net for my flight, one through 12, and then my node, which is kind of my position. I put my node as either two or four as a wingman, and I hit active on two different antennas and I am in the net[work],” Burnside explained.

By comparison, Link 16 has a few more “button pushes. But pretty transparent. Really, you could tell someone how to get into the link, type it in, enter the net, and that’s all they need to know.”

“It’s extremely, extremely easy to utilize the datalinks -- very user friendly,” Burnside said of the overall comms network.

Burnside and five other F-35A pilots graduated the service’s eight-month long B-course on Aug. 5. The 62nd Fighter Squadron, the 61st’s sister squadron, also trains a six-person F-35 class, with one currently ongoing at the base.

The only platform these pilots have known in their brief Air Force careers is the Lightning II.

There was a time during training, Burnside said, his datalink wasn’t working “as advertised.”

“Usually there’s a simple fix of turn it off then turn it back on, which is generally kind of our answer here in the F-35 right now,” he said.

“But there’s other ways for me to kind of battle track red forces and blue forces with other sensors I have on the jet -- my radar, or my [Electro-Optical Targeting System] or any sort of [Identification Friend-or-Foe] interrogator transponder, which will allow me to keep track of who’s who in the battlespace,” he explained.

All of these avionics help keep the F-35 combat ready on command.

The pilot said doubling back on those systems versus the comms networks does “degrade his situational awareness and it’s not going to be as user friendly, I’m going to have to work a little bit harder to maintain some of that stuff to track my lethality or effectiveness.”

“It is good that you have [both MADL and Link 16]  that you could work on,” he said, because “they have different purposes, so ideally you always want them both to be working but if one is not working, you’re still able to keep SA with one or the other,” he said.

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