The Defense Department plans to continue studying the feasibility of equipping the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with new weapons for boost phase interception.

The Trump administration’s new missile defense review, released Thursday, states that the Air Force and the Missile Defense Agency will deliver a joint report to senior Pentagon officials in the next six months “on how best to integrate the F-35, including its sensor suite, into the [ballistic missile defense system] for both regional and homeland defense.”

F-35A Lightning II test aircraft assigned to the 31st Test Evaluation Squadron from Edwards Air Force Base, California, released AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X missiles at QF-16 targets during a live-fire test over an Air Force range in the Gulf of Mexico on June 12, 2018. The Joint Operational Test Team conducted the missions as part of Block 3F Initial Operational Test and Evaluation.

The aircraft, in production by Lockheed Martin [LMT], has a sensor system that can feasibly perform missile detection via infrared signatures in the boost phase, transmit tracking data to the joint force, and can currently track and destroy cruise missiles.

“In the future [it] can be equipped with a new or modified interceptor capable of shooting down adversary ballistic missiles in their boost phase and could be surged rapidly to hotspots to strengthen U.S. active defense capabilities and attack operations,” the report said.

Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin told reporters Thursday at the Pentagon that the F-35 could be capable of such boost phase interception with a new weapon on it, and could potentially be done at low cost.

“I have seen recently … several assessments which indicate that this is something we should be looking at,” he said.

“For certain regional geographies — North Korea comes to mind — we actually think it’s entirely possible and cost effective to deploy, what I will loosely call, air-to-air interceptors, although possibly of new design, on advanced aircraft,” he added. The jet could then be used either as a sensor for targeting or as the weapons platform to perform the missile intercept.

“I don’t think an [Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile] from an F-35 is likely to be able to do the job, but that doesn’t mean that no missile launched from an airplane could ever do the job,” Griffin said.  “And we do think it could be both cost effective and within the bounds of … math and physics.”

Should the weapon component possibility fizzle, the Pentagon does plan to integrate the F-35’s sensor suite into its broader missile defense system, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Missile Defense Agency director.

“We have plans to integrate the F-35 into our missile tests, to assess that capability as part of the overall ballistic missile defense system or missile defense system,” he said.

Defense Department officials on Thursday noted that it plans to move at a “crawl-walk-run” pace for developing new technologies for missile defense, whether it be new weapons for the F-35, space-based sensors (Defense Daily, Jan. 17) or other proposals in the report, such as new laser-based weapons launched from space.

The Pentagon is planning a “very disciplined, milestone-drive … data-rich decision-making process,” Greaves said.

Griffin added: “We’re confident that the technologies outlined in the report are technologies we want to investigate with experiments and prototypes and tests. … We’re not talking about going straight from the missile defense review report to an objective system.”

That being said, experiments should begin to materialize over the next few years, he added. “Those of us at a high level in the department are really here only for a limited period of time, and we want to see some action,” he said.