WASHINGTON — Raytheon Technologies is pushing its aircraft precision landing system out to more customers globally, making it easier for allied navies to cross-deck on each other’s ships and for Marine jets to island-hop as high-end warfare concepts push the fleet in those directions.
The company’s Joint Precision Approach and Landing System was designed to help planes land on aircraft carriers at sea with less stress on the pilot, as the system aboard the ship communicated with the aircraft to guide them to a safe landing. JPALS has already been installed on the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships and been integrated with the F-35B and C Joint Strike Fighter jets. The system will also be integrated with the Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker as that vehicle goes through development and testing.
Still, company officials say JPALS grows more useful as more customers apply it, and argue international adoption creates new opportunities.
CJ Jaynes, a retired rear admiral and the executive technical advisor for precision landing systems at Raytheon, told Defense News the U.K. Royal Navy has installed JPALS aboard Queen Elizabeth, currently on the U.K.’s first aircraft carrier deployment in more than a decade, and on Italy’s Cavour.
She said Japan is also interested in the capability and that the company has talked to South Korea and France.
This is particularly important for how the U.S. has said it plans to fight in the future: a squadron of U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs are deployed on Queen Elizabeth now, and Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger said this week he intends to have Marines operating off Japan’s Izumo-class helicopter destroyer by the end of the year.
Looking across the entire network of allied fleets, “if you’ve got JPALS on all of your ships, all your aircraft carriers, then you can land on any of the aircraft carriers using JPALS, so that’s really where the interoperability comes,” Jaynes said, speaking to Defense News last month during the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space conference.
The U.S. and U.K. navies last year announced an interchangeability plan for future operations, with the current Queen Elizabeth deployment being the first demonstration of the idea that they could not only deploy alongside each other, but go further to mix and match operators, parts, logistics, command-and-control structures and more, to get the most capacity out of working together.
Even if the U.S. doesn’t go quite that far with other allies, the ability to fly U.S. jets off an Italian or Japanese carrier would open up a lot of options in a future combat situation.
Brooks Cleveland, a former Navy F-18 pilot and senior aviation advisor for precision landing systems at Raytheon, said during the interview that the U.S. and allies have already practiced using each other’s ships as lily pads for long-range operations, but he said for safety reasons this kind of exercise is only done during the daylight and in good weather. Having JPALS on all the ships and all the aircraft would make landing on an unfamiliar ship safer and easier, opening up more options if the U.S. and its allies found themselves in a situation that required cross-decking.
Whether landing on a ship at sea or landing in an expeditionary airfield ashore, Cleveland said, “as a pilot, when you’re flying and you know you have to come back and land in the mountains at nighttime or in bad weather, you’re taking a lot of brainpower away from the mission, and in the back of your mind it’s, ‘Ugh, I still have to go back and do that,’” he said. “Knowing that you have a system — it’s almost like it’s somebody reaching out and holding onto you and pulling you back in.”
Raytheon and the Marine Corps are also in talks over using JPALS ashore to help pilots find expeditionary runways — which would be particularly relevant under the Marines’ expeditionary advanced base operations concept that involves dispersing small groups of Marines across islands and shorelines where there may not be much established infrastructure. The service has already practiced establishing expeditionary airfields to refuel and rearm aircraft, and having a JPALS system on the ground would make it all the easier and safer for these planes to come in for a landing in a new and temporary location.
“When you think about island-hopping, the system is so small — right now it’s just in transit cases, like pelican cases — you can throw it in the back of a helicopter, land, set it up and you’re good to go,” Jaynes said. “If you need to move to another island, you can pick it back up and go, and it takes about an hour [for] synchronization with the satellites: so you roll out the transit cases, set up your GPS triangle in about 15 minutes, and then you’re synchronizing with satellites and you’re good to go for precision approach.”
Cleveland said the system could be moved via Humvee or potentially airdropped and that one expeditionary JPALS system can establish up to 50 different landing points within a 20 nautical mile radius.
After two previous tests in 2019, the Marine Corps invited Raytheon to come to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma this June for more testing. Marines in F-35Bs did 50 or 60 landings, both traditional and vertical, using the JPALS guidance system. They started using just the primary runway, but in later tests they established a secondary runway 11 miles away and practiced approaches where JPALS diverted them to a different runway at the last minute. In the real world, this could happen if bad weather made the original landing point too dangerous to approach, or if enemy forces had picked up on the original landing point on a small island, Jaynes and Cleveland explained.
The Navy will soon integrate JPALS onto its V-22 Osprey variant, the CMV-22 that will serve the carrier onboard delivery mission on aircraft carriers. This integration work could bring the Marines’ MV-22 into the fold, Jaynes said, meaning the Marines could use both their F-35Bs and MV-22s in precision landings on allied ships and expeditionary island airfields.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.