The F-35 Could Shoot Down North Korean Ballistic Missiles with a Simple Change. But There’s a Catch

While the F-35 and it’s complement of AIM-120 air-to-air missiles weren’t specifically developed for addressing a ballistic missile threat, aerial combat expert Justin Bronk states that by “tweaking it a bit,” the aircraft does have the ability to engage these targets. However, there is a catch that significantly impacts the F-35’s effectiveness in this arena.

The F-35 was designed with the promise of revolutionizing aerial combat, featuring substantial advancements in the area of air-to-air encounters. But, the threat of North Korean ballistic missiles, which the nation claims can strike the US mainland, is certainly a larger concern than any enemy fighter jet could hope to be.

Bronk, who works for the Royal United Services Institute according to a report by Business Insider, says, “By changing the firmware a bit, tweaking it a bit, you could gain a theoretical” ability to use the F-35 to engage ballistic missiles. However, the logistical challenges associated with such a mission are substantial.

Since North Korea doesn’t launch from a consistent location thanks to their mobile launchers and chooses strange times to send ballistic missiles flying, the lack of predictability means the F-35 would only have a small window of time to get into position.

“You’d have to be impractically close to their launch area,” said Bronk. “Given that an AIM-120 burns for seven to nine seconds and then coasts, and a ballistic missile does the opposite, all while climbing,” Bronk asserts that the F-35 would have to be particularly close to the launch site to engage the missile successfully.

Since arranging for the necessary proximity to the launch is incredibly challenging, it’s more likely that the F-35 would play a different role when dealing with ballistic missiles, providing location, tracking, and targeting duties for other US vessels.

The F-35 was designed to integrate with various Navy targeting systems, allowing it to relay critical details with ease.

“If you had an F-35 loitering as close as possible, but not in the airspace, with its sensor package tuned to pick up a ballistic missile’s infrared signature,” said Bronk, the fighter could perform as a “forward part of the warning chain.”

Using this approach, the F-35 could remain outside of North Korean airspace, avoiding a scenario that could be viewed as an act of war, while tracking the ballistic missile. Then, with the information, a US Navy destroyer could engage the target and shoot it down.

Since North Korea uses missile tests as a form of propaganda, being able to address the missiles effectively could damage morale with ease. It also hampers their research and development efforts, while potentially allowing the US to handle a missile that is actually launched at the US.