As I pointed out yesterday, the F-35 is best evaluated on three axis compared to the traditional two. It is the third axis, the “z-axis” which brings the capabilities that the legacy fighters can never match to the fore. Critics of the F-35 tend to keep their criticism within the traditional x-y axis because that’s what they understand to some extent or another. Where they rarely venture, other than to generally dismiss it with a hand-wave or two, is the third axis which, when combined with the other two, make the F-35 the most advanced and capable fighter in the world.
Instead of concentrating their attention on how many engines it has or the hiccups the program has gone through, they ought to be concentrating on learning what the future will bring with this aircraft and what that promises in terms of advancing our national defense.
It’s not like the information isn’t available. For instance, last year an exercise named “Northern Edge 2011” was conducted. It demonstrated – key word – the abilities of the F-35 in no uncertain terms:
The F-35 can be understood as a combat aircraft that can operate and manage combat space within a 360-degree radius for more than 800 miles. A recent operational test of the F-35 radar and the DAS occurred in Northern Edge 2011, a joint and combined exercise that serves as a focal point for the restructuring of U.S. power projection forces. As the results from the exercise are evaluated, military leadership and program managers should be able to make a definitive judgment on the way ahead for the program now, not in some distant future. In both Northern Edge 2009 and 2011, the air combat baseline was being re-normed and the limitations of legacy aircraft were well highlighted when compared to newer systems. Northern Edge validated, in real time, the ability of American and soon allied TacAir fleets to give total concurrent SA to each combat pilot. In a robust jamming operating environment, the F-35 radar and DAS separated themselves from the pack and have initiated a new era in thinking about combat operations.
SA refers to situational awareness, a key and major component in any sort of engagement. The side with the best situational awareness can best quickly decide on decisive tactics and allocate its resources and combat multipliers where they will most influence and win the battle.
As an F-35 joint program office release underscores, this is not only about the ability of airpower to operate in a robust EW environment in which cyber conflict is a key dimension, but it is also about the ability of an airborne capability to support maritime operations:
This year provided an opportunity to observe the performance of the F-35 JSF systems in multiple robust electronic warfare scenarios. The AN/APG-81 active electronically scanned array radar and AN/AAQ-37 distributed aperture system were mounted aboard Northrop Grumman’s BAC 1-11 test aircraft. Making its debut, the AN/AAQ-37 DAS demonstrated spherical situational awareness and target tracking capabilities. The DAS is designed to simultaneously track multiple aircraft in every direction, which has never been seen in an air combat environment.
Northern Edge 2011 proved the abilities of a number of the systems on the F-35 in what is described as a “robust EW” environment. Most likely that means an EW environment beyond what one would normally expect, even in a high threat environment. What those systems demonstrated, in some cases, were abilities never before seen “in an air combat environment”.
Additionally, it revalidated some of the F-35s older systems:
A return participant, the AN/APG-81 AESA, demonstrated robust electronic protection, electronic attack, passive maritime and experimental modes, and data-linked air and surface tracks to improve legacy fighter situational awareness. It also searched the entire 50,000 square-mile Gulf of Alaska operating area for surface vessels, and accurately detected and tracked them in minimal time.
Again, you’re reading about abilities and capabilities unknown until now. Yet when critics address the aircraft, rarely if ever do they go here. When you begin to build a list of what this fighter can do that legacy fighters can’t even dream of doing, and begin to understand the capability and synergy that will build for the entire force, you can understand why critics who’ve staked their reputations on calling the airplane a failure avoid it.
As implied below, that z-axis they avoid so studiously makes this more than an exceptional airplane. It makes it revolutionary:
The C4ISR-D capability in each cockpit takes the F-35 out of the linear fifth-generation development path. The F-35 radar was validated in a tactically relevant environment. Until proven otherwise, America still has the most capable EW and, to use an older phrase, ECCM (electronic counter-countermeasures) fighting force in the world. So being tactically “validated” in an American-designed exercise is the gold standard. Northern Edge exercises provide operational—not test—environments. Block 2 is ready for Marine F-35B initial operational capability. In 2009, Block 2 was the first improvement up the z-axis, and pilots from MAWTS (the Marine equivalent of TOPGUN) are paying close attention. Block 3—the next step up the z-axis—demonstrated that the radar worked effectively in sea surface search and ship target track. If American TacAir forces afloat can see an enemy, they will kill that enemy. Block 4 is the next step up for “Three Dimensional Warriors” and a z-axis cockpit. A fighter pilot knowledgeable about Northern Edge, when asked about DAS, stated that it had a feature of “passive ranging.” When asked what that meant, he casually remarked, “Shooting people off your tail and all that stuff.”
A capability they’ve never had before. Kind of nice, I’d think. Note the first sentence in the paragraph, though. That’s a key point. This isn’t just an upgraded 4th generation fighter we’ve made stealthy and tagged with “5th generation’ (i.e. “linear progression”). This is well beyond that as the cites above point out.
Unfortunately that sort of vital information about the abilities and capabilities of the F-35 don’t get the play in the defense media it deserves. Perhaps, as I said before, it is because most of the principles have staked their credibility on taking the program down. This obviously wouldn’t help their cause at all. Or, as an alternative, maybe they simply don’t understand or feel comfortable with an axis that is “out-of-the-box” and prefer to stick with sniping about those things with which they do have marginal comfort.
I don’t know. But what I describe above is the heart and soul of why this aircraft is a game changer. The fact that it doesn’t get the attention it deserves is a true disservice to those making decisions about our nation’s future national defense posture.