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F-35 reminds China who’s top gun by shooting down a Houthi cruise missile

OpinionF-35 reminds China who’s top gun by shooting down a Houthi cruise missile

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American technology is scoring big against Iran-backed threats in the Red Sea region, and it’s bad news for China.  

You know the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Carney was in the news again Sunday, shooting down drones launched from Yemen’s Houthi rebels against merchant shipping in the Red Sea. This crew has been taking out drones and missiles supplied by Iran for weeks now, and their tally is over two dozen destroyed so far.  

You may not have heard about another very significant engagement. On Oct. 31, an F-35I stealth fighter made in the USA and flown by Israel, shot down one of Iran’s cruise missiles fired by Houthis from Yemen. This was the first-ever air-to-air kill of a cruise missile by an F-35. 

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China, take note. China has no recent combat experience (thank heavens), so they watch and dissect military operations, especially when advanced technology and tactics are on display. China saw what happened to that Houthi cruise missile. And they know the F-35 can do it to Chinese missiles, too.  

U.S. Air Force F-35s are a game-changer. One just shot down a Houthi cruise missile. (U.S. Air Force)

Americans call the F-35 the Lightning II, after the P-38 Lightning fighter plane of World War II fame. Israel calls their F-35Is “Adir” meaning “mighty one.”  

As I see it, the F-35 cruise missile shootdown delivers three major lessons to vex China. First is the exceptional tracking by the F-35. Now understand, cruise missiles are a lot smaller and thinner than fighter jets and tracking them has been a big worry since the 1970s. 

Here comes the F-35 to smash the paradigm. After the Oct. 31 kill, Israel later released a crisp gun-camera style video of the F-35 tracking and engaging the cruise missile. The detection and intercept verify that the F-35, flown by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and many allies, can detect and hit incoming cruise missiles trying to slip by at low altitudes. That’s crucial for the balance of power in the Pacific.  

Two retired American fighter pilots broke it down. “Dude, I’m just impressed the targeting pod is tracking it. That tells you how great the EO/IR system in the F-35 is that it’s tracking and watching the whole thing happen,” F-16 fighter pilot C. W. “Mover” Lemoine and his A-10 pilot guest call sign “Shanghai” commented on “The Mover and Gronky Show,” posted on YouTube on Nov. 15.  

The two retired American fighter pilots said the F-35’s track was particularly impressive “because of the ground clutter, to get that thing while it was going so low and so fast and track it accurately.”  

Exactly. Only it’s not just a pod. The F-35 has sensors distributed all along its husky belly. The targeting system uses electro-optical waves (like TV) plus infrared (also called heat) to find and track targets, in addition to radar. The hot little plumes coming off that Houthi cruise missile were dead giveaways to the F-35. 

Every China wargame scenario features a lot of incoming missiles hitting U.S. forward bases around the Pacific on Guam, Japan and other locations. U.S. Navy ships could be targets, too. China has been making cheap-looking videos about blowing up U.S. aircraft carriers for years.  

The F-35 has an incredible radar that can distinguish and track ballistic missiles over 800 miles away. And maybe further. The F-35 raises the difficulty for China in planning a missile barrage on a forward U.S. base or ship, for example.  

US and South Korean aircraft fly over Korean Peninsula

In this photo provided by South Korean Defense Ministry, A U.S. B-52 bomber, C-17 and South Korean Air Force F-35 fighter jets fly over the Korean Peninsula during a joint air drill in South Korea, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. (South Korean Defense Ministry via AP)

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The second lesson is that the F-35 can do all that tracking while keeping up its stealth. That will be important when the F-35 operates in and around air defenses built by China or Russia. Tehran has splashed out cash for some upgraded Russian air-defense batteries, but as the mullahs know, that won’t stop the F-35.  

The F-35 capability will only grow. Israel took delivery of their first F-35 in 2016 and modified them for their own weapons. “It’s open architecture, which sits on the F-35’s central system, much like an application on your iPhone,” Benni Cohen, general manager of IAI’s Lahav Division, told Defense News at the time.  

Out in the Pacific, F-35s detecting and tracking missiles will feed that data back to the network where combat AI can generate missile tracks and give commanders multiple intercept options.  

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Third, as the Israeli intercept showed, it’s not just Americans flying F-35s. Across the Pacific, the air forces of Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore are all buying and flying F-35s. Plus a whole list of European allies. That’s a big boost to integrated deterrence. 

Lesson to Xi Jinping: American technology wins, anywhere on the globe. 

CLICK HERE FOR MORE REBECCA GRANT  

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