In recent months we have taken a close look at some fairly exceptional airshow photography here at The War Zone. This has brought us very close to action including the moment of release of a countermeasures cartridge from an F/A-18 Hornet fighter, as well as the spectacle of a Polish Su-22 ground-attack jet using photo-flash flares to light up the night sky. Now, Twitter user and aviation photographer @Task_Force23 has shared with us a remarkable capture of an F-35A jet popping out a flare in its uniquely stealthy way.
The photo in question was taken on September 30 at the Pacific Airshow over Huntington Beach, California, which features an air display that takes place directly over the water. As to the aircraft, this is the Lightning II from the U.S. Air Force’s F-35A Demonstration Team. You can read more about that team, and its pilot for this season, Maj. Kristin “Beo” Wolfe, in this previous War Zone story. Clearly evident below the rear fuselage of the jet is a small door, behind which a flare cartridge is seen in the process of ejection, just before it spools away and ignites in a fiery ball, as in the photo below.
Of course, infrared decoy flares are a very popular addition to a wide variety of airshow display routines, by fixed-wing aircraft large and small, as well as helicopters. In the past, we have also looked at some of the restrictions that can apply to using these decoys. After all, while they look spectacular, they also come with their own risk, on account of their pyrotechnic nature.
Regardless, the F-35A’s routine at the Pacific Airshow made use of flares, although these countermeasures are perhaps not something immediately associated with the jet.
As a stealth fighter, the F-35 series, of course, has a wide range of highly advanced tricks when it comes to avoiding hostile air defense systems and other sensors and weapons that the enemy might bring to bear against it.
Nevertheless, defensive countermeasures, in the form of radar-reflecting chaff and infrared decoy flares are tools in its repertoire and remain an effective way of protecting the aircraft from missile threats. Simply put, they are designed to spoof hostile heat-seeking missiles by providing a more enticing target.
Now, thanks to this photo from @Task_Force23, we can look in close detail at how the F-35A goes about launching a flare.
First, TF tells us about how they captured the shot:
“I was hoping the 10 fps on my D500 would be able to catch the instant a flare popped out from the payload door but didn’t expect to catch the moment just before the canister lights up. Was honestly aiming for something like the photo below.”
“My attention was actually on the visible compression and expansion waves on the jet while going over the shots on the computer (which are awesome in their own right), but then I noticed the small metal canister when zooming in to check for sharpness.”
“Just got really lucky with the timing on the shutter.”
As for the jet, the key specialty is the fact that, prior to use, the F-35A’s expendable countermeasures are concealed behind dual flip-open doors, located immediately aft of the weapons bays, and these feature serrated edges to help with the aircraft's low observable radar signature.
As to what’s inside those doors, we know that, in the early years of the F-35A’s Air Force service, chaff countermeasures, which release radar reflective material to blind and confuse enemy aircraft and air defenses, were not included. Back in 2019, we reported on how the decision was taken to introduce chaff cartridges, after all.
It's also worth noting that, just behind the hatch for the expendable countermeasures on the right-hand side is another trapdoor, this time for the potential housing of an electronic warfare-enabled towed decoy known as the AN/ALE-70. This highly advanced store, four of which can apparently be carried, is something that we have discussed in detail in the past.
In terms of infrared countermeasures, we don’t know for sure what flares were being used over Huntington Beach, although we have reached out to the F-35A Demonstration Team for more details. In the meantime, we can get an idea about what these cartridges cost, thanks to Pentagon budget documents dating back to 2018. The MJU-61/B flare, for example, cost $75 apiece, in 2018 prices. More capable is the MJU-68/B flare, which costs an eye-watering $3,000 per unit and would make for a very expensive fireworks display.
Another option is the MJU-66/B flare, with a price tag of $135 in 2018, and described by the U.S. Department of Defense as follows:
“MJU-66 decoy Countermeasure Flare is an improved version of the MJU-64 providing increased decoy effectiveness and protection for the A-10, C-130, and F-35 aircraft and HH-53 and HH-60 helicopters and is being evaluated for other aircraft. It is a one-piece aluminum case containing a payload of advanced special material elements, loaded into a multiple jettison unit magazine installed on a countermeasure dispenser. When deployed into the air stream, the special material reacts to emit an infrared signal to decoy infrared-seeking missiles.”
The disparity in costs reflects the very different kinds of capabilities that different countermeasures flares can provide. At one end of the scale is the kind of flare that simply provides a heat source, which can be enough to beat a simpler threat. To defeat a more advanced threat, a countermeasure might not only need to match the host aircraft’s thermal signature but might also need to perform aerodynamically in order not to simply fall away. As infrared seekers and their software and hardware backends improve, more advanced countermeasures will are needed.
The F-35A Demonstration Team performs over Lake Washington, including punching out flares, during the 2022 Seafair Air Show:
As well as airshow performances, air combat exercises, or real-world combat, there’s another scenario in which an Air Force F-35A might employ flares. This is to provide a clear warning to an intercepted aircraft in peacetime, like the single-engine airplane that ventured into temporary restricted airspace over San Francisco in June this year. While it was intercepted by an F-35A, on that occasion the fighter wasn’t permitted to use flares, but it was cleared to fly a ‘headbutt’ maneuver — typically, flying close to the intercepted aircraft, before pulling up in front of them, sometimes in a steep climb, to get the pilot’s attention. As we suggested at the time, the low altitude of the intercept was likely a factor in no flares being authorized.
All in all, the extensive box of self-protection tricks available to the F-35 pilot means that they can fly into combat against many types of threats with a good degree of confidence that they will survive. Nevertheless, infrared countermeasures have far more value than their use for airshow displays or getting the attention of a civilian pilot flying where they shouldn’t.
With potential adversaries continually working to improve their air defenses, stealthy aircraft such as the F-35 will face ever more threatening environments that will demand a full spectrum of defensive capabilities — including ever more advanced expendable countermeasures, including flares — to ensure they can successfully complete their missions.
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