Friday, July 20, 2012

The F-35 and the future of power projection

Yesterday, the government of the UK took delivery of their first F-35B.  Minister of Defense Philip Hammond said:

“This hugely capable combat aircraft is now officially British and in the hands of our expert pilots.”

Key words?  “Hugely capable combat aircraft”.

It is how “hugely capable” the F-35 is that seems to somehow not have been transmitted well.  The fact is the capabilities are so outside the realm of how legacy 4th generation fighters are thought of that it is apparently hard for many critics to wrap their heads around them.  The advanced capabilities the F-35 brings to the future are revolutionary, not just evolutionary.

To understand that you have to drop the 4th generation legacy aircraft thinking and rethink the entire way our fighter aircraft will be employed.  To do that I suggest you read an excellent report by Robbin Laird and Edward Timperlake in Joint Force Quarterly entitled “The F-35 and the future of power projection”.

In it the authors lay out, about as well as anyone can, the generational changes that make the F-35 “hugely capable” as MoD Hammond mentioned.  And the capabilities they describe are as complete and total a change from traditional employment and use of fighter aircraft as can be imagined.  While most critics concentrate on the traditional attributes by which fighter aircraft have been evaluated previously, they mostly miss almost the entirety of the new capabilities that form the core of the F-35’s advanced technologies.

How big is the leap?  Well, in real terms, think of the 4th gen fighters as you would a rotary phone.  Then imagine the capabilities of the F-35 in comparison:

The F-35 provides a flexible architecture similar to a smart phone. With the F-35, we define a synergy space to draw on the menu of applications. And the F-35 combat systems are built to permit open-ended growing capability. In mathematical analogies, we are describing something that can create battlespace “fractals,” notably with a joint force able to execute distributed operations. The aircraft is a facilitator of a more robust combat environment than was available with legacy aircraft and command and control. This change requires pilots to rethink how to operate. F-35 performance and its pilot allow a revolution along the information axis of combat, or what might be identified as the “z-axis.”

Key phrases – “open-ended capability”; the aircraft is a “facilitator” as much as a fighter.  And it requires pilots and planners to “rethink” how they will operate with this aircraft in their inventory.

Another point to be made is how a 4th gen fighter operates vs. an F-35.  It can be found in the development and evolution of the legacy fleet:

The legacy combat aircraft have added new combat subsystems over a 30-year period. These evolved aircraft and their new subsystems are additive, iterative, and sequential. The resulting configurations are built over the core foundational aircraft.

And as each system was added, pilots had to learn how to use and then interpret the information that the system gave them.  It was then the pilot’s job to integrate or “fuse” the data.

The F-35 was built with a foundation that allows interactivity across the combat systems, permitting the forging of a combat system enterprise managed by the computer on the aircraft. Said another way, F-35 core combat systems are interactive with one another, creating a synergistic outcome and capability rather than providing an additive-segmented tool. The aircraft’s systems are built on a physical link, namely, a high-speed data bus built on high-speed fiber optical systems. To provide a rough comparison, legacy aircraft are communicating over a dial-up modem compared to the F-35 system, which is equivalent to a high-speed broadband system. The new data bus and high-speed broadband are the facilitators of this fully integrated data-sharing environment on the aircraft. While legacy aircraft have had similar subsystems, integration was far less mature.

Connected to the other combat systems via the high-speed data bus is the CNI system (communications, navigation, and ­identification). This is a flexible radio frequency system that enables the aircraft to operate against a variety of threats. The other core combat systems, which interact to create the combat systems enterprise, are the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, DAS, Electrical Optical Targeting System (EOTS), and electronic warfare (EW) system.

The fusion takes place in the aircraft and is presented to the pilot who can concentrate on the tactical mission. It also passes along information gathered by its sensors while integrating that sent by other sensor systems to give the pilot unparalleled situational awareness. The power of the integrated systems on the F-35 are much more flexible and interactive than anything on a legacy ship.

As a former pilot says:

“When this plane was designed, the avionics suite from the ground up, the designers looked at the different elements that can be mutually supporting as one of the integration tenets. For example, the radar didn’t have to do everything; the Electrical Optical Targeting System didn’t have to do everything. And they were designed together.

Fusion is the way to leverage the other sensors’ strengths. To make up for any weaknesses, perhaps in the field of regard or a certain mode, a certain spectrum, with each of the sensor building blocks, they were all designed to be multifunction avionics.

For example, the AESA is an MFA—a multifunction array. It has, of course, the standard air-to-air modes, the standard air-to-ground modes. But in addition, it’s really built from the ground up to be an EW aperture for electronic protection, electronic support, which is sensing, passive ops, and electronic attack.”

And, as mentioned, they’re open ended, meaning upgrading is mostly a matter of software.  In fact, the Navy is saying their future F/A-XX is likely to be an upgraded F-35.

There is much, much more in the report.  But the message is clear.  This isn’t your dad’s old Oldsmobile and thinking of it in those terms clearly causes one to miss the revolutionary changes this aircraft brings to the services.  Read the entire report.  It clearly points out why the F-35 is not only a fine aircraft in its own right, but is clearly the evolutionary fighter that will forever change how we think and fight in the future.

I’ll be covering more of the report in future posts.



  1. What´s changing the game? All those things, including sensor fusion and real time tactical data link, have already existed for many years in the Gripen. Of course not with the latest avionics that will be fielded in The Gripen NG. The Eurofighter and The Rafale are implementing something similar in their new upgrades. But the Gripen NG is the most mature and will have everything internal. Russia is working in the same direction, so by the time the F-35 is fielded it will be like all the other top-figthers. With the difference that it lack supercruise, supermaouverability, and a good protection.