With all the nonsense flying around among critics about headrests and reduced visibility from the F-35's canopy, I thought we'd go back to basics today. Here's a short reminder of the aircraft we're talking about, not the straw one the critics like to attack:
The F-35 joint strike fighter is often defined by its stealth characteristics, and the debate revolves around whether one needs “a high-end aircraft” or, if one is pessimistic, whether “stealth is really stealthy.” Although interesting, such discussions miss the point. Stealth is an enabler for this aircraft, not its central definition. As a Marine F-18 pilot put it:The emphasis is all mine and is there to point to the areas and capabilities that critics just can't seem to wrap their heads around. This aircraft isn't about "dogfights" - that's 4th generation thinking (although all indications are, given it's systems and low observability, the F-35 would acquit itself well in that sort of an environment). It is about a revolutionary step in a new direction with one-of-a-kind capabilities that will change how combat aircraft are deployed and used.
"I would say low observability is a capability set or is an asset to the platform, but the platform as a whole brings a lot by itself. There are situations where low observability will be very important to the mission set that you’re operating in. And then there will be situations where the ISR package or the imaging package that comes with that aircraft, the ability to see things, will be more important; that will change based on the mission set and how you define the mission."
Moreover, one of the challenges facing the F-35 is that it is often described using historical aviation words, generally obscuring the technological advance of stealth itself. As Lieutenant General David Deptula, USAF (Ret.), constantly reminded his Service and others, the “F” before the F-22 and the F-35 is somewhat of a misnomer. There are significant generational changes in the way individual combat aircraft and fleets of aircraft handle data and can make decisions.7
Stealth on this aircraft is a function of the manufacturing process; it is not hand built into the aircraft and maintained as such. It is a characteristic of high-tolerance manufacturing, and as such, stealth will be maintained in the field, not in the factory or depot. This is revolutionary in character.
At the heart of the F-35 is a new comprehensive combat systems enterprise.8 The F-35 is the first combat aircraft that sees completely around itself. The Electro Optical Distributed Aperture System (DAS) makes this happen, and it allows the operator or the fleet managers to see hundreds of miles away on a 360-degree basis. The combat system enterprise allows the aircraft to manage the battlespace within this seamless 360-degree space.
Unlike legacy aircraft, which add systems that have to be managed by the pilot, the F-35 creates a synergy workspace where the core combat systems work interactively to create functional outcomes; for example, jamming can be performed by the overall systems, not just by a dedicated electronic warfare system.
The F-35 is a flying combat system integrator and in a different historical epoch than the F-15s, F-18s, and F-16s. The 360-degree capability, coupled with the combat system enterprise, explains these historic differences on a per plane basis.
The ability of the new aircraft to shape distributed air operations collectively is another historic change that the United States and its allies need to make, especially with the growing missile, air defense, and offensive air capabilities in the global market space and battlespace. 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. All of the legacy U.S. aircraft with the latest modifications, when offered for foreign sale, were rejected in India’s fighter competition for the much newer European fighters, the Eurofighter and Rafale.
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.
I don't understand why this new conceptual framework (along with F-35's new advanced capability) is so difficult for critics of the program to understand.