Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The F-35 and the “Z-Axis”

The advanced systems and capabilities of the F-35 are so revolutionary, they’ll be reshaping the pilot culture.  So contend the authors of an excellent paper entitled “The F-35 and the Future of Power Projection”.

The authors note that historically, we evaluate fighter aircraft on a two dimensional “an x-y axis”.  By that they mean:

The design characteristics blended together prior to the F-35 have been constantly improving range, payload (improved by system and weapons carried), maneuverability (measured by “P Sub s”), useful speed, and range (modified by VSTOL [vertical short takeoff and landing]—a plus factor). The F-35 is also designed with inherent survivability factors; first, redundancy and hardening, and then stealth. Stealth is usually seen as the fifth-generation improvement.


Traditionally, the two dimensional depiction is that the x-axis is time and the y-axis is performance and captures individual airplanes that tend to cluster in generation improvement. Each aircraft clustered in a “generation” is a combination of ­improvements. Essentially, the aeronautical design “art” of blending together ever improving and evolving technology eventually creates improvements in a linear fashion.

However, evaluating the fighter on only these traditional “x-y axis” characteristics misses the bigger point of the F-35’s capabilities and development according to the paper.  The F-35 adds a new axis.  The “z-axis”. 

The F-35 is not a linear performance enhancement over legacy or fourth-generation fighter aircraft. When we consider information and the speed at which it can be collected, fused, presented, and acted on in the combat environment, those who possess this advanced decision capability will have a clear advantage.

While this is not a new concept, having been originally conceived in John Boyd’s famous OODA (observe, orient, decide, and act) loop, the information dimension of combat aircraft design now is so important that it forces us to gauge the value of such a weapons system along the z-axis, which is the pilot’s cockpit OODA loop axis. This OODA loop ability is measured as the combined capability the pilot gains from integrated command, control, communications, computers, ISR, and his resultant decision making (C4ISR-D) and employment or action. From Boyd’s theory, we know that victory in the air or, for that matter, anywhere in combat is dependent on the speed and accuracy of the combatant in making a decision. The better support the pilot in a combat aircraft receives from his information systems, the better the combat engagement outcome. The advantage goes to the better information enabled. Pilots have always known this, but the revolutionary fifth generation, designed in C4ISR-D, requires a similar advancement in how pilots approach their work.

In addition, today’s industrial learning curve to improve sensors, system capability, and weapons carried is likely flatter than that required to build another airframe, and it may be a new American way of industrial surging. The U.S. arsenal of democracy may be shifting from an industrial production line to a clean room and a computer lab as key shapers of competitive advantage. This progress can be best seen in movement out the z-axis. The Air Force F-22 pilot community has been experiencing this revolution for some time, and their lessons learned are being incorporated into a pilot’s F-35 training.

Essentially a major key to winning any battle, whether it be on land, sea or air, is to get inside the other guy’s decision loop.  It’s called many things in many of the services, but that’s essentially the goal.  If you are inside his decision loop, you are acting decisively before he can.  At best, he is reacting to you.  It is at that point, you have an almost overwhelming advantage.

What the z-axis provides, because of the way it gathers, processes and fuses information through its C4ISR-D capability, is that overwhelming advantage to our pilots.

How will it reshape the pilot culture?  Here’s Marine Corps General Jon Davis, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing commander, describing how three current pilot cultures will become one:

The F-35B is going to provide the USMC aviator cultures in our Harriers, Hornets and Prowlers to coalesce and I think to shape an innovative new launch point for the USMC aviation community. We are going to blend three outstanding communities. Each community has a slightly different approach to problem-solving. You’ve got the expeditionary basing that the Harrier guys are bringing to you. You have the electronic warfare side of the equation and the ­high-end fight that the Prowler guys think about and the [­communications] and jamming side of the equation, which the Prowler guys think about. And you have the multi-role approach of the F-18 guys.

That’s powerful.  Additionally, by bringing EW into every F-35B’s cockpit it will reshape how the USMC will use and deploy the V-22 Osprey as well:

The Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 (MAWTS-1) is currently working to shape that new pilot culture. MAWTS-1 pilots and trainers are looking at the impact of the V-22 and F-35 on the changes in tactics and training generated by the new aircraft. MAWTS-1 is taking a much older curriculum and adjusting it to the realities of the impact of the V-22 and the anticipated impact of the F-35.


[T]he inherent capabilities of the emerging F-35 C4ISR-D cockpit with 360-degree SA may turn out with appropriately designed data links to be a force multiplier in the tactical employment of the MV-22 Osprey and the helicopter community, and reach back to Navy combat forces afloat.

The point, of course, is instead of specific aircraft designed to do specific missions, each F-35 will be capable of providing unprecedented data and situational awareness to future operations.

The “z-axis” – a reason why the F-35 isn’t just evolutionary, it’s revolutionary.



  1. hi name is Nuno and in from Portugal...sorry in advance for my bad english...I have been foloing your blog for some time now...It s about time someone step up and write about the F-35 as system that integrates new technolagies and tries to advance air combat...everybody else just writes the bad news not seing the advaces this program bring to NATO and it s allies...good work and keep your opinios and anallises coming..

  2. Thanks Nuno - I agree, far too much negativity and far to little analysis and positive info on the F-35. Appreciate the note and thanks for reading.