What is the Fifth Generation Aircraft All About? The View From The Cockpit


Discussing Fifth Generation Aircraft with the USMC Pilot of the F-22

In a recent discussion with Lieutenant-Colonel Berke who is based at Nellis AFB, the only USMC pilot of the F-22, the role of fifth generation fighters and how they are being used was discussed with Second Line of Defense.

Lieutenant-Colonel Berke has been an F-18 pilot, an F-16 pilot, a TOPGUN instructor and served as ground Forward Air Controller with the US Army for a year. He gained his Viper experience in an F-16A–flying aggressor tactics at TOPGUN; so you have a Marine Hornet Driver flying “foreign tactics” in a Navy training squadron in an AF Fighter. He is currently flying the Raptor and shaping tactics for the plane in its joint force role.  He will become the second squadron commander at Eglin for the USMC version of the F-35.


SLD: Could you explain why a USMC pilot is flying the Raptor?

Lieutenant-Colonel Berke: The decision was made a few years ago to put joint pilots into the Raptor.  The Navy did it in 2006 and the Marine Corps wanted to as well.  For the USMC, the transition to the JSF is a critical issue.  We can learn from the operational experiences of the Air Force F-22 transition.  So an exchange billet with the Air Force at Nellis was created in the Operational Test squadron to give a Marine exposure to the process. The intent was to get someone into the fifth-gen world; to see what the Air Force has done with the F-22 for the last few years and thereby get some fifth-gen perspective.  Then that pilot would hopefully be value-added to the Transition Task Force and the JSF team at Headquarters, Marine Corps. Also, it’s important to get some perspective on what the Air Force lessons learned have been with the introduction of the Raptor and to learn some of their roadblocks in moving from legacy to fifth gen.  We (USMC) are the lead for the IOC for the JSF and have a lot to gain from that experience. I have been selected to Command our JSF Squadron, VMFAT-501 at Eglin AFB.  I will replace the first Marine JSF Skipper who is there now.

SLD: Obviously there are two advantages to this.  I mean first of all the one mentioned, which is to begin to understand what the fused sensor experience is all about and the whole capability of an aircraft is not really an F series but a flying combat system. And second you get operational experience working the fifth generation capability with legacy aircraft.

Lieutenant-Colonel Berke: I think you’re hitting the nail on the head with what the JSF is going to do, but it’s also what the Raptor mission have already morphed into. The concept of Raptor employment covers two basic concepts. You’ve got an anti-access/global strike mission; and you have the integration mission as well. And the bottom line is that integration mission is our bread and butter.  When I say “us,” I’m talking about the Air Force and the F-22.  Most of our expected operating environments are going to be integrated and success depends on how we play with other four-gen assets.

The joint operational role for the Raptor is significant. I’d say 80% of our funded testing since I’ve been here in the last two years in some way, shape, or form involves integration; whether it’s integration with other airplanes like F-18s, F-15s and 16s, or integration with Aegis.  Maritime Interdiction Integration is a key element of what we’re doing. Virtually all of our tests are about how to make the airplane value-added to the conventional fleet, and that’s pretty much all we’ve done recently.

SLD: But let me just puzzle over something for a moment, which is the whole experience of flying an F/A-18 and shifting to an F-22. Just what’s that whole experience for you?

Lieutenant-Colonel Berke: It’s a major evolution. There’s no question about it. My career has been in F-18s, but I also flew F-16s for three years. I was dual operational in the Hornet and the Viper when I was a TOPGUN instructor.  I am now coming up on three years flying Raptors.  I was also on carriers for four years, so I’ve done a lot of integration with the Navy and a lot of integration with the Air Force.  Three years flying with the Air Force has been pretty broadening.

For me, it’s a great experience to see the similarities and difference between the services.  Navy and Marine aviation is very similar.  USAF aviation is very different in some ways.  I actually was with the Army for a year as FAC in Iraq as well.  So from a tactical level, I’ve got a lot of tactical operator experience with all three services – Navy, Army, and the Air Force.  This has been really illuminating for me having the experience with all of the services in tactical operations.  Obviously I will draw upon that experience when I fully engage with the JSF. But flying a Raptor, the left, right, up, down, is just flying; flying is flying.  So getting in an airplane and flying around really is not that cosmic no matter what type of airplane you’re sitting in.

But the difference between a Hornet or a Viper and the Raptor isn’t just the way you turn or which way you move the jet or what is the best way to attack a particular problem.  The difference is how you think.  You work totally differently to garner situational awareness and make decisions; it’s all different in the F-22. With the F-22 and certainly it will be the case with the F-35, you’re operating at a level where you perform several functions of classic air battle management and that’s a whole different experience and a different kind of training.

SLD: When you’re in a classic tactical aircraft, basically somebody else is doing the battle management in an AWACS or CAOC or somewhere. With this aircraft, with the F-22 and certainly the F-35, you’re really moving from a classic air battle management approach and that’s got to be a whole different experience and require a different kind of training.

Lieutenant-Colonel Berke:It absolutely is.  The irony is that when you talk about distributed battle management it is based on how the F-22 and F-35 provide for situational awareness.  With an F-18 or F-16, you have federated sensor systems; the information is stovepiped and the pilot must fuse the information in his own mind.

You basically receive a lot of data and you’re trying to shape that data into usable information. In the Raptor, the data is already fused into information thereby providing the situational awareness (SA).  SA is extremely high in the F-22 and obviously will be in the JSF; and it’s very easy for the pilot to process the SA.

Indeed, the processing of data is the key to having high SA and the key to making smart decisions.  There’s virtually no data in the F-22 that you have to process; it’s almost all information.  There’s a small amount, but it is presented to you clearly and it takes very little effort to process what’s going on. The fused data is so easy to absorb and it’s so easy to use.  A huge amount of brain cells, a huge amount of pilot effort is necessary to do that in the Hornet. You just don’t have to do it anymore in the Raptor and the JSF.  Ironically, that takes some getting used to.  The SA in a fused cockpit is so incredible that it takes time to adjust from a legacy mindset, but once you do, the payback is exponential.  The best SA I ever had in the Hornet pales in comparison to what the JSF will do for me.

SLD: And what is the impact of being able to share that fused data with other assets?

Lieutenant-Colonel Berke:The impacts of sharing data will be profound with JSF using MADL (Multifunctional Advanced Data Link) as a gateway; currently the Raptor requires an offboard gateway, but will eventually get MADL as well.  As a matter of fact, we just completed a test on IFDL (Intra-flight Data Link) distribution through to BACN (Battlefield Airborne Communications Nodes) to get Raptor data into Marine F-18’s with great success.

The F-22, especially when we get that data off board, gives tremendous SA to legacy assets.  Eventually when we can pipe the data either through a gateway or when we get MADL, those methodologies once they’re resolved will make the aircraft a fused sensor for 4th gen fighters. Or put in other words, the beauty of the F-22 is it’s basically a big flying sensor providing info to our integrated assets.

And the way we perceive our role as a big flying sensor allows us to be a facilitator for another force to execute their mission more effectively, more efficiently and with less risk. We quantify everything with the metrics of survivability and lethality.  Obviously the goal is simply to increase survivability and increase lethality, so we want to be more deadly while take less risk doing it.

SLD: Could you discuss further the interaction between the Raptor and the legacy aircraft?

Lieutenant-Colonel Berke:  The Raptor can facilitate the Hornet’s mission whether it’s by providing SA, meaning giving him sensor pictures that shows him where the highest threats may be.  Or by injecting a kinetic attack to let that Hornet pilot to get to a release point without having to deal with a particular threat. I can make the Hornet more survivable.  I can facilitate him getting to a point where he optimizes his sensor footprint or optimizes his kinetic release and I can increase his survivability by handling a particular threat.

I might not affect his ability to be more lethal in the sense that I can’t help him guide his weapons or maybe I’m not finding the target for him because I don’t have those type of sensors. But the result is a significant force multiplier that’s really hard to quantify because it makes everybody more survivable and hopefully by definition it makes the force more lethal.

SLD: So the F-22 underwrites the overall capability of the joint force?

Lieutenant-Colonel Berke: Exactly.  Our perception of what we do in the joint force is to enhance the entire joint force’s survivability. If we can keep somebody alive for longer or keep somebody alive closer to the threat, that makes them more lethal and then in turn makes us, and everyone, more survivable.  So there’s a lot of synergy back and forth, there’s nothing more lethal than four Hornets and two Raptors.

We’re a lot more lethal with four Hornets and we’re more survivable with four Hornets .  That’s something that’s often overlooked; how much less of an opportunity the threat has to kill a Raptor because there are Hornets flying with us.  It will be even more true with the JSFs operating; two JSF will be a lot more survivable with four Hornets than they are by themselves.   And everyone becomes more lethal as a result.

SLD: I think of the Raptor as the tip of a three-dimensional grid and the fact that you’re flying 60,000 feet or more in a maritime environment, and the F-18 certainly flies much lower, that extra 20,000 feet that I’m carrying up at the top of the grid and looking at the nap of the earth in a maritime environment is very significant, it seems to me, in terms of your CONOPs. You want to leverage the assets we’ve got now. But over time as you essentially ferret these things out and replace them with F-35s and F-22s and add other unmanned or whatever other assets, the capability that you’re seeing now for distributed operations will be really a sea change in terms of the ability of the fleet, both airborne and surface. And the fleet I’m referring to not just the surface ships and the airplanes to work together to expand their survivability and their lethality, to use your terms?

Lieutenant-Colonel Berke:  Yes absolutely.  The idea that we’re going to attack a cruise missile problem without the use of tactical aircraft surprises me from an analytical perspective, especially considering how often we do it and how much we consider it.  It’s hard to train to counter-missile operations, but it’s certainly a mission set that we investigate routinely.  The Raptor and JSF and their expanded sensor sets will play a key role. Working the relationship between Aegis and 5th Gen is central to the capability to kill missiles attacking the fleet or in dealing with longer-range targets.

SLD: Could you highlight the changing role of the combat pilot in the fifth generation aircraft?

Lieutenant-Colonel Berke: In the sensor fused cockpit of the Raptor, two things result.  It simplifies the information and presents it more accurately and more quickly.  It also provides such performance in a full 360-degree sphere. That allows a Raptor pilot almost 100% of the time to just make decisions. So he can essentially spend none of his time interpreting and spend all of his time deciding the best way to attack a problem.

That allows the pilot to decide what’s best for him and for all the airborne forces whether it’s other Raptors or F-18 strikers that you’re supporting or F15’s Eagles on a sweep, or any integrated mission. You don’t have the luxury of doing that in a legacy airplane.  The fused sensors enable all of this.  The JSF will only expand this capability with its newer and expanded sensor array.

As a flying sensor, you can accurately decide the best way to attack a particular problem for everybody else that is flying.  A Raptor flight lead (and a 5th Gen fighter is far more effective than a flight leader in another airplane) with the amount of SA that he has can help guide the other aircraft that don’t have that level of SA.

SLD: So from this point of view, the new role for the combat pilot, with new fused sensors and related capabilities, the new aircraft are game changers?

Lieutenant-Colonel Berke: People throw out those terms all the time, “the paradigm shift”, “a game changer”, “an evolutionary leap”, all those things, but it’s all true. It’s all accurate. And I can tell you from the perspective of a guy who has flown over 2,000 hours in a Hornet.  I was a TOPGUN instructor.  I was really at the top of my game. I was as competent as the Marine Corps could’ve taught me to be.

In spite of this background, it was a challenge and a major mental leap for me to go to the F-22.  It takes time to turn the corner with 5th Gen thinking.  But once you do, there’s no going back.  Your SA and your ability increase dramatically.  Truth be told, you’re always going to have limits in any legacy platform, for many reasons.  There’s not a pilot in the Air Force that’s flying Raptors right now that will not tell you the exact same thing.

But what they’ll also tell you is that the first class that flew the Raptor straight from flight school was exceptional.  They were surprised at how good they were at optimizing the airplane as a sensor.  The guys with no experience did extremely well; and I think a huge part of that has to do with them not bringing old habits or a lifetime of thinking a certain way.

Changing the way you physically move is one thing, but changing the way you mentally think is very difficult to do and it takes time.  When the concepts just don’t apply anymore and you’ve leveraged those concepts for 15 years, it’s not an easy thing.  This will be a challenge for all pilots transitioning to the JSF because it’s going to force them to think differently than they ever thought before. But doing so is crucial to the shift in air operations.  Once the mindset shift occurs, the true capability will be understood.

As I said before, once that happens the results are exponential.  In just a few years, we’re going to have STOVL JSF operating from forward bases.  Aside from all the operational and strategic implications, the tactical significance is huge.  A single F-35B pilot will have more SA than anyone flying a Marine aircraft ever has.  And he’s going to be directly connected to the entire supported force.

When you consider the fused cockpit of a JSF, you begin to understand just why all those descriptors are really accurate.  It’s an evolutionary leap. It’s a paradigm shift.  It’s a game changer!



*** Posted On September 13th, 2010