Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The F-35 and the "Combat Cloud"

Yesterday, we covered Lt. Gen David Deputa's article on the importance of the F-35 to the future of our warfare strategy.

Today we'll highlight an interview Deputa had (along with Dr. Robinn Laird) with Gen. Michael Hostage, the head of the Air Force's Air Combat Command in Langly, VA.  In it they further discuss the concept Deputa layed out in yesterday's post and the critical importance of the F-35 to its functioning:

Laird & Deptula: How important are the 5th generation aircraft to shaping the "combat cloud" which you see as essential to the next phase of air combat capabilities?

Hostage: They are central to the transition. We are operating in contested airspace and need to shape a distributed air operations capability. The F-22s aggregated in appropriate numbers can do some amazing and essential tasks, and with a significant number of F-35s, we can reshape the operational space.

The ability of the planes to work with each other over a secure distributed battlespace is the essential foundation from which the air combat cloud can be built. 

And the advantage of the F-35 is the nature of the global fleet. Allied and American F-35s, whether USAF, USN, or USMC, can talk with one another and set up the distributed operational system. Such a development can allow for significant innovation in shaping the air combat cloud for distributed operations in support of the Joint Force Commander.

That highlights the critical importance of the F-35 about as succinctly as you're likely to see it.
Laird & Deptula: Historically, the evolution of aircraft has been described in terms of change in the form factor [i.e. their visible, physical size and shape, rather than their invisible, internal electronics]. This is really changing with the F-35. What is your thinking on the impact of this change and the introduction of software-upgradeable aircraft?

Hostage: The 5th generation aircraft will enable the air combat cloud and allow me to use my legacy assets differently. Many of my 4th generation fighters can be used to extend the network of linked systems, providing reinforcing fires, and I can focus on the 5th generation assets as the core nodes shaping distributed joint capabilities.

And when we come to the evolution of "next" generation systems, the form factor could stay quite similar as we evolve the capabilities within the planes or in terms of how the flying systems can interact and operate together.

Rather than thinking of 6th generation aircraft in form factor terms, we can operate the new air combat cloud and leverage that moving forward.
So we're not just talking about an "evolution" in fighter jet technology, but instead a "revolution" in the way we conduct war with the 5th generation fighter as the center of the strategy.  And note, too, that Gen. Hostage envisions the 5th generation fighters, particularly the F-35, to allow him to "extend" the use of 4th generation fighters, making them even more capable than they are today.

Finally, two more critical points pertaining to the F-35:
Laird & Deptula: How important are numbers for the F-35 from this perspective?

Hostage: Very important. It is not a boutique aircraft. The full impact of the F-35 aircraft comes with its fleet operational capabilities for the enablement of the air combat cloud.

Another advantage of the F-35 is that is built to evolve over time as the environment evolves. Software and hardware upgradeability will allow changes over time to the fleet, not just individual aircraft. 
Gen. Hostage, in a few lines, is able to outline what the critics don't seem to understand or grasp.  The advantages and capabilities the 5th generation aircraft bring to the game completely change the concept of how it is played.  They change the way it will be planned, how forces will be distributed, how they will fight.

This isn't just about a new airplane ... it's about fighting and winning the next war by redefining "joint operations" with the F-35 at the center of the strategy.


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