The F-35 Lightning II has been operational with the USMC for more than a year, with the USAF for several months, and is nearing introduction into the USN. These services see the F-35 not merely as a new capability, but as part of a much broader transformation of the power projection force.
It is timely to review the perspectives of the US services and their allies, including Australia, on the impact of fifth generation-enabled combat capabilities.
In general, there is a convergence of thinking about the broad strategic direction of the reshaping of power projection forces, but a diversity of approaches with regard to how best to achieve change.
Twenty-first century warfare concepts of operations, technology, tactics and training are in both evolution and revolution. The F-35 is at the heart of this change for a very simple reason – it is a revolutionary platform. The F-35 will make combat aviation history with its first-of-kind sensor fusion cockpit. The jet is far more than an “F” – a “fighter” – it is in fact an “F/A/E”, effective in air-to-air, air-to-ground, and electronic warfare, all in the same mission if necessary. Allied and US combat pilots will develop new tactics and training; and over time this will drive changes that leaders must make for effective command and control to fight future battles.
An issue has been that the F-35 has been labelled a “fifth generation” aircraft, a sensible demarcation when the F-22 was being introduced a decade ago. But the evolution of the combat systems on the F-35, the role of the fusion engine, and the impact of a fleet of integrated F-35s operating as a foundational element will make the description “5th Gen” obsolete.
The F-35 is, rather, the first of a new generation of design features and airborne capabilities that will change everything. It is a first generation information and decision making superiority “flying combat system”.
The global fleet of F-35s will be the “1st Gen” for building a foundation for a fundamental change in the way air power operates in overall combat concepts of operations. This is not about a single aircraft platform; it is about what an integrated fleet of F-35s can deliver to transform everything.
The coming decade will be very innovative. Combat warriors at all ranks can leverage what they learn and then apply those lessons to reshaping the force over and over.
The impact of an integrated fleet of F-35s with fused internal pilot combat data and a distributed information flow out will allow the US and its allies to rethink how to do 21st century air-enabled operations. Each F-35 will be able to network and direct engagements in 360 degrees of three-dimensional space by offloading tracks to other air/land/sea platforms including UAVs and robots.
The most overlooked aspect of the roll-out of the F-35 is its global nature. This will become more apparent as the three US services and their allies concurrently roll-out their F-35s and sort out how their new air systems are transforming their forces.
The F-35 is not an airplane; it is a global air combat system.
Looking forward to the time when US forces and their allies have substantial numbers of F-35s flying in the Pacific, the commander of the USAF’s Air Combat Command, General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, envisaged “an American and allied CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center) … sharing a common operating picture [and becoming] become more effective tactically and strategically throughout the area of operations”.
Although the F-35 is a US aircraft, it has significant foreign content provided by an integrated global network of suppliers. With the introduction of F-35s globally comes the nascent global sustainment enterprise. Air forces are working-out ways to leverage the commonality in the aircraft and the support structure to sustain them in combat.
It is a nascent effort, but is already laying down building blocks such as sustainment enterprises in Europe and Asia to support the partners, and the operation of US forces from regional support centres, such as those being built by the Italians, the Dutch or the Australians. The roll-out of the aircraft is built upon a common logistics enterprise shaping a global sustainment effort similar to that of the successful the C-17 global enterprise.
Global defence industry, not just the US defence industry, is significant to building and sustaining the F-35. About 30% of the F-35 fleet will be built with foreign content, and the maintainability will rest on best practice from global suppliers.
The F-35 logistics enterprise will not simply be forced to rely on sole-source suppliers for any number of key parts produced globally. And with the system to identify parts, the performance of those parts will be put to the test and the better performing parts suppliers determined by performance in combat and in operations, not simply by a procurement bureaucracy.
The US’s F-35 partner countries are Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, and the UK. And there are a number of other countries buying the aircraft via the more traditional Foreign Military Sales acquisition route, including Japan, South Korea, Israel and possibly Singapore. Each of those countries is buying the F-35 as part of their overall efforts to reshape 21st century defense forces.
The global nature of this fleet will be a trigger for change, and key allies are looking at an F-35 enabled defence transformation. Leveraging this transformation, rather than pursuing the traditional stove-piped approach to platform modernization and upgrade, will be the essential catalyst for subsequent platform acquisitions. The decade ahead will be one of significant technological, strategic, and tactical innovation, which in turn will set the base for future systems.
Dr Robbin F. Laird is a military and security analyst who has taught at Columbia, Princeton and Johns Hopkins universities, and has worked for the Center for Defense Analyses and the Institute for Defense Analyses.