“Re-Norming” Air Operations


By Robbin Laird

01/26/2011 –

During the first quarter of 2011, we intend to publish our second book in our air power series.  The first was entitled The Three Dimensional Warrior and laid out the USMC approach to operations within which air power is the critical cement.  Unfortunately, the various attacks on the USMC acquisition plans of adding V-22s and F-35Bs to the force have largely missed the point. 

These are not simply platforms, they are at the heart of current and future MAGTF operations. 

Amazingly, critics simply focus on IOC costs and pay no attention to con-ops. 

This is a prescription for disaster.

The title of the second book could have been the future of airpower.  But today, the meaning of airpower has been clouded by the Iraqi and Afghan operations. For many, we could have the Army Air Corps, rather than a combat air force deployed on land and at sea. For many, the historic dominance established by U.S. airpower is a given, with no real “peer competitors” are in sight.  The U.S. and its allies can simply rest on their laurels, keep building traditional aircraft, and build new so-called unmanned aircraft.

For some, the U.S. does not need “exquisite systems,” although having deployed advanced systems has been the foundation for air dominance throughout the post War period.  For some, the numbers of U.S. and Allied aircraft are so dominant that the U.S. and its allies have a decade to begin a new effort to stock the force. All of these assumptions are seriously flawed.  After the initial air operations in Iraq, there was no air dominance threat.  And Afghanistan is not a contested air space, although many UAVs have been lost in Afghanistan. Supporting the ground warrior is crucial, but not the determinate missions for an air combat force.

The conditions facing 4th generation aircraft are making them exceptionally vulnerable to ground and air attacks.  The ground dimension is increasingly dominated by significant numbers of missiles (very clearly evident in the Middle East) or by significant advances in ground based air defense systems. The air dominance requirement is not determined simply by numbers of aircraft, which seems to be the bean counters measure of air dominance.  Air dominance is the sine qua non for any effective military operation worldwide.

And worldwide is the problem.  Increasingly, the numbers of aircrafts and ships available to the United States and its allies has dropped significantly over the past decade.  The USAF has reached the point where it increasingly resembles the condition of the US Coast Guard where the service can surge to a problem, but only by stripping itself of many of its available assets.  And the tanker crisis has made it evident that in situations like Korea, the ability of the U.S. to surge airpower is questionable over a sustained period of time. The historical memory of air dominance is not the practical reality in current conditions.

The U.S. has cut its airpower inventory in half over the past 15 years, and the trend downward will continue, unless there is a real commitment to manufacturing the F-35.  Unless the U.S. makes a significant commitment to building aircraft, the promise of the fifth generation aircraft will not be realized.  Commitment without construction will simply create the chimera of innovation.

The term “fifth generation aircraft” is also part of the problem facing the future of airpower.  The term suggests a linear relationship to preceding aircraft, so that one can argue that F-18s and F-16s can be upgraded and become 4.8-generation aircraft. This is simply not the case.  The fifth generation aircraft are a benchmark for a new approach to airpower, which is why we call this book the “re-norming” of air operations.

This can clearly be seen in the F-35 combat system enterprise.  The classic aircraft adds systems to the aircraft to provide new capabilities. The pilot has to manage each additive system.  The F-35 has five major combat systems, which interact with each other to provide capabilities. Functional capabilities emerge from the interaction of the systems done by the machine and are not simply correlated with a single system.  For example, jamming can be done by several systems aboard the aircraft, the machine determine which one through interaction among the systems.  And the entire system rests on a common architecture with broadband capabilities.

But if airpower leaders simply mimic the operations of older aircraft with the fifth generation aircraft, the promise of the new air operations will not be realized.  The result would be that the U.S. and its allies will simply mimic the approach of the French facing the Germans in World War II where they had superior tanks with outmoded tactics and command structures, and with the predictable result.

The new aircraft simply do not function, as do the old. We do not have to guess at this for the performance of the F-22 in the real world has already demonstrated the promise.  We have interviewed pilots of the F-22, which underscore the promise; unfortunately the F-22 has been put into a political ghetto, so the ability to leverage the capabilities of this aircraft in transforming air operations is too frequently outside the bound of political legitimacy.

Only the Russians and Chinese seem to be carefully studying the impact of the new aircraft, and in the Russian case celebrating the opportunity to generate exports for their initial entry mimicking some of the 5th generation capabilities.

The fifth generation aircraft are at the heart of a potential new air combat system enterprise.  The F-22s have been the harbinger, but for full participation the F-22 needs to be modernized with some of the essential air combat systems present on the F-35. The F-35 is a flying combat system able to operate across the spectrum of warfare.  It is the first plane, which can manage 360 space and has the combat system to manage that space.

Deployed as a force, it enables distributed air operations, an approach crucial to the survival of our pilots in the period ahead. Distributed operations are the cultural shift associated with the 5th generation aircraft, and investments in new weapons, remotely piloted aircraft and the crafting of simultaneous rather than sequential operations.

Unfortunately, the debate about 5th generation aircraft continues as if these are simply aircraft, not nodes driving significant cultural changes in operational capabilities. And they are essential tools in executing difficult missions such as missile defense as well.

The pilots whom we have interviewed are “living” this transition.  As Colonel Berke, the USMC pilot of the F-22 put it:

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.

And Berke underscored the new decision-making role for the combat pilot enabled by the new aircraft. 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.

And Berke further added: 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.

F-22 pilots at Langley AFB further clarified the changes possible with the new aircraft.“Bean” Akers: I have 1,200 hours in the F-15C model, both here operationally and then flew the Raptor for three years, showed up here in Langley right before I went operational, and then was on all the first deployments, Kadina, Alaska, you name it.  So, I have done just about everything in the jet other than shoot something off the jet in anger.One of the key things you talk about is there may not be a need for an AWACS.  But there also may not be the ability for that AWACS to be there, because of the survivability challenges being posed by the threat systems that are being developed to remove them from the fight.

The enemy always has a vote. So we practice our training that there may be times where it is just us over the horizon where the AWACS is hundreds of miles behind us and he’s really not doing a whole lot for us. I’ve seen that at Red Flag where he’s trying to build a picture and his systems just can’t keep up with the mass of the enemy coming from, say, the west.  And we have to basically tell them; we’ve got the picture much better than you do.

The legacy way of fighting with the fourth generation assets relying on reach back is a critical part of the way they employ.  As we move forward with the systems and sensors that are on both the F-22 and F-35, I really don’t demand or need that requirement anymore.  Do they add to my battle space awareness?  Yes, they do.  But there are times where he is not needed and may not be available due to the threat.“Shotgun” Anthony: I’d like to dive into what Bean is talking about.  I would like to discuss the difference between the current fight and what we’re moving to with fifth generation aircraft.  And of course that doesn’t mean that Legacy aircraft, the fourth generation aircraft are not in the play.

But when it was only fourth generation aircraft, and the sensors on the 4th generation jet were structured so that they are federated solutions to different pieces of the RF spectrum.  I have an active radar that is continuously transmitting a picture off my nose. In other words, seeing what is in front of me is the focus of the classic approach. And that’s a federated system on the aircraft — an individual aircraft.  And so in order to build a coherent picture in front of our noses, we had to communicate verbally on our radio. I am painting a picture of a three-dimensional battle space with words.  And we would communicate with what we were seeing with our individual jets, because it doesn’t necessarily see the whole airspace in front of me.  We parse out sections of airspace to sanitize in front of us.  And we build a picture from close end from the nose all the way out.

And a significant cultural shift will be necessary with the new aircraft: The mission commander or the flight lead was always clamoring for sufficient information to make appropriate tactical decisions, which are really only one very thin step removed operational decisions. 

And from the operator’s perspective, it will be like the difference between stumbling around a dark room and turning the lights on. The combat situation will be instantaneously transparent.  All of those high processing time tasks that the pilot used to spend his time on with the objective of knowing what was going on so that he can then take an appropriate action — you know, point the jet in the right direction, herd the cats in the right direction – are now done by the airplane. All of those activities are now completely overcome by events. 

He doesn’t need to do them anymore; he now sees what he needs to see to make those decisions. So from an operator’s perspective, it will feel very natural.  And it will feel like you’re now able to breathe, whereas before, you were always struggling for breath.  You’re no longer at the top of Everest trying to breathe; you’re down at sea level.  You get what you need.

I think the most difficult and the most painful set of shifts will be organizational.  They will relate to the people who are now forced to relinquish operational strategic decisions to folks like us in the room.  Which has always been the case. So tactical decisions have always had operational strategic and national impact.  The difference is that organizationally, we’ll be forced to reconcile that notion, and understand that the individual who’s charged with those tactical decisions will now have the kind of information that was previously only available nearly fused but far more imperfectly fused in the CAOC. That information will now be distributed in the battlespace.

So that speaks to an entirely different — not just physical architecture, also personnel architecture, but more importantly leadership paradigm and approach to solving a problem.  You now are far more able to remove fat layers of intermediate data processing and you’re able to sic a force of very capable assets on an objective.

We’re able dynamically to adapt in the middle of that process and make appropriate decisions in support of your objective far more effectively than if you had just sent planes out on a specific task.  Go perform this task, because we back here in the building think that this collection of individuals performing these tasks will result in the amalgamative outcome that we were hoping for. Now we can send folks with the idea of an outcome we hope for.  And they now have the information to take that kind of action.  And they have the capacity to go where other assets couldn’t go previously.

The shift from the older aircraft and operational paradigm and new aircraft and the new operational paradigm can be envisaged as the network versus the honeycomb or of spears being launched against targets versus 360 degree moving decision-making systems organizing the air ground operational space.

In the classic aircraft operations of the past thirty years, the lead aircraft strike enemy targets and are organized by AWACs and the CAOC to shape the air operations combat space.  Wild weasels or F-117s would lead the attack with tactical aircraft and strategic bombers part of either the initial assault or providing follow on attack capability.  The large aircraft such as AWACs are key command elements.

This approach is increasingly suspect.

The large aircraft are targets of the adversary, the initial attack is against increasingly sophisticated air defenses or has to cope with significant numbers of missile launches. And states like China are introducing significant numbers of unmanned aircraft to complicate the air attack. The network of aircraft is targeted as a major vulnerability, with the goal of disrupting the pace and rhythm of the attack.

And the significant reductions in the numbers of aircraft mean that follow-on force attacks, so crucial in the presence of mobile targets, are undercut in their efficacy.

With the new aircraft, air operations are conceived of differently.  The F-35s operate in 360 space with systems able to see hundreds of miles away.  They could work with other multi-mission systems like Aegis to operate in a very different manner. The classic systems are used sequentially, with different capabilities shaping either a signaling function or operational capability.  In contrast, the new systems operate simultaneously.

The F-35s and Aegis, for example, are deployed.  Period.  They could be used to defend, to attack, to do kinetic or non-kinetic attack. It is really up to the national command authority. And the F-35s and F-22s will operate in honeycomb, not a network.  The planes operating as a fleet will function as separable decision makers, with joint operational missions.

An adversary can destroy parts of the honeycomb but they cannot destroy the ability of the combat air force to operate against remaining adversary forces.  The fleet is not simply a combat air arm but embodies deployed and distributed decision making capabilities. The “re-norming” of air operations will provide the foundation for building new equipment to shape enhanced capability.  If the focus remains on building the older systems, one is investing in the past not the future.

As Vince Martinez warned in a recent posting on our website: How do you create opportunities for martial advantage in the future?  Fund technological innovation on foster growth on a production level scale. If we can’t collectively see the tactical, operational and strategic advantages that the MV-22 and the JSF bring to bare because we have been trained to focus on the distracters, then maybe we should try looking at those programs from a different angle; the MV-22 and the JSF are the martial enterprise’s best incubators for the future–plain and simple.

Often, you can run across military and former military people telling jokes along the lines of “…congratulations, you just managed to kill the MV-22 Program!  What now Lieutenant?” 

Unfortunately, this joke is now more reality than satire. The greatest disappointment in this whole dilemma, however, is that we likely don’t have an answer to that very simple question that isn’t an evolutionary step backward. This is the time where leaders must lead, and those in the positions to do so need to ensure they are looking out long and far enough to be able to differentiate the forest from the trees.

An additional aspect in developing joint or coalition CONOPS for the F–35 will revolve around its interaction with other manned and unmanned assets. With regard to manned assets, a key challenge will be to work an effective connectivity battlespace with other manned aircraft, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon and legacy U.S. aircraft. Here, the advantages of each platform in contributing to the air battle and to the type of flexible military force packages that 21st-century air capabilities provide will be the focus of a joint concept of operations.

In addition to the core dynamic of working with a variety of manned aircraft across the joint and coalition battlespace, the F–35 will be highly interactive with the evolution of robotic elements. UAS are not well designed for self-defense. For early entry UAS to stay alive, they need to be part of a wolf pack built around the protective functions of the manned aircraft. As air dominance and air superiority operations succeed, their significance can recede during an operation, allowing the role of unmanned aircraft to increase significantly and, over the course of the operation, supplant manned aircraft in ISR and C2 roles.

The man-machine attributes and computational capabilities of the F–35 provide a significant opportunity to evolve the robotic elements within airspace to provide for data storage, transmission, col-lection, weapon emplacement, and loitering strike elements, all of which can be directed by the manned aircraft as the centerpiece of a manned- robotic strike or situational awareness wolf pack. Rather than focusing on robotic vehicles as self-contained units with proprietary interfaces and ground stations, the F– 35 can be useful in generating common linkages and solutions to combine all into a core wolf pack capability.

In short, a number of key elements of innovation can be generated moving forward, ranging from new missiles, to new remotely piloted vehicles, and to new long range strike capabilities which can leverage the new combat aircraft’s ability to penetrate and operate in contested air space.

But to move forward, one needs to recognize that the new combat aircraft are not simply an iteration of change but a potential driver for new paradigms of combat operations, in the air, at sea and in air-ground con-ops.

The old system of sequential air operations built around legacy aircraft, AWACS, and multiple assets needs to be replaced in a timely manner by a well resourced distributed operations enterprise.