Fifth Generation Aircraft and Disruptive Change



By:Robbin Laird

An Earlier Version of this piece first appeared on Defense News February 21, 2011 p. 61

U.S. air power is at a crucial turning point.  In a stringent budgetary environment and with a demand to shape a post-Afghan military, the crucial requirement is to invest in the future not the past.  President Obama is calling for a Sputnik moment in the investment in future technologies.  There is little reason to exclude the Department of Defense from such an effort.

Yet this is exactly what is happening.  After cancelling the F-22 without ever understanding what the F-22 brings to the joint warfighter, the Administration is slowing its investment in the F-35 and investing in legacy aircraft. Amazingly, policy makers have not taken on what the Indians grasped: why buy 40 year old airframes?

But is not just about airframes or stuffing as much as you can in legacy aircraft.  The new aircraft represent a sea change with significant savings in terms of fleet costs and overall capability at the same time. The sustainability of the new aircraft are in a world significantly different from legacy aircraft. Digital maintenance is part of the revolution in sustainability.

The cost of maintaining 4th generation aircraft is an oft-overlooked aspect of looking at cost of keeping the old and introducing the new. Here are some comments from a blog by an F-22 maintainer who sounds like the Maytag repairman.

They say the 22 is small compared to the 15. Man they have no idea what small is. In the 22 I can stand in the nose wheel (I’m 5’10”) while the 16 I still had to kneel down. They said the AMAD (our ADG)on the 22 is bigger than the one on the 15. When me and the other 16 guy heard them talk about it we kinda just looked at each other and knew what the other one was thinking: they have no freaking clue how freaking small that thing is compared to an ADG.

To be honest the 22 is closer to the 16 then it is the 15 and for that I’m thankful. Course sometimes I wish I could go to the 16 again because the stupid jet doesn’t break. And when it does break its usually specs. And when specs “repair” it they just reboot it and badda bing badda boom jet is “repaired”.

It can be frustrating at times because there is not much for us to do except small stuff. Hell let me tell you guys something. R2 a flight control actuator takes about 45 minutes total and that’s including depanel, remove, install, ops check, put panel back on, clean up and sign off. Its beautiful yet frustrating. Kinda like being married I imagine. (

The sustainability revolution enables a significant increase in the sortie generation rates for the new combat aircraft.  And in addition to this core capability, there is a significant transition in combat approaches facilitated by the new aircraft.

The aircraft can shape disruptive change by enabling distributed operations.  The shift is from linear to simultaneous operations; it is a shift from fighters needing reach back to large aircraft command and control and ISR platforms to 360 dominance by deployed decision makers operating not in a network but a honeycomb.

Fifth generation aircraft both generate disruptive change and live off of disruptive change.  Taking a fleet approach, rather than simply focusing on the platforms themselves highlights their potential for disruptive change.  Properly connected or interoperable with one another, the new aircraft can work together to operate like a marauding motorcycle gang in an adversary’s battlespace.

Rather than operating as a linear force, the marauding motorcycle gang creates chaos within the OODA (observe, orient, decide, and act) loop of the adversary.  And by having an onboard combat systems enterprise able to respond in real time to the impacts, which the aircraft are creating in the battlespace, they can respond to the fractual consequences of the battle itself.  Rather than going in with a pre-set battle plan, the new aircraft can work together to disrupt, destroy, and defeat adversary forces within the battlespace. It is about on the fly (literally) combat system processing power which enables the pilots to act like members of a marauding motorcycle gang.

The 5th generation aircraft enable the pilots to become key decision makers within the battlespace; and if properly inter-connected shape a distributed operations approach to battle management and execution.  They are key elements of C4ISR D, which is deployed decision-making rather than data collection sent back to decsion-makers for less timely actions.  C4ISR D is the core capability which 21st century military forces need for strategic advantage (

For the United States to have an effective military role in the new setting of regional networking, a key requirement will be effective and assured combined command, control, and communications, linked by advanced computing capabilities to global, regional, and local intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance assets (C4ISR). The services will need to ensure that there is broad synergy among U.S. global forces fully exploiting new military technologies and the more modest capabilities of regional allies and partners. Indeed, C4ISR is evolving to become C4ISR D, whereby the purpose of C4ISR is to shape effective combined and Joint decision-making.

A key element of this new capability is the F-35 which functions as 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.

The fifth generation aircraft are a benchmark for a new approach to airpower.

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Photo Credit: SLD 2011

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.

The USMC clearly understands and embraces the disruptive capabilities of the 5th generation aircraft. For the USMC, tac air does not simply play a close air support (CAS) role in any traditional sense. It is an enabler for distributed operations when such operations are essential to either conventional strike or counter-insurgency warfare.

USMC aviation has allowed the USMC ground forces to operate with greater confidence in deploying within the civilian population in Iraq. Aviation’s roles in both non-kinetic and kinetic operations have allowed the USMC to avoid operating within “green zones” so as to facilitate greater civil-military relations. Aviation has also provided an integrated asset working with the ground forces in joint counter-IED operations.

And quite obviously, battlefields of the future will require the USMC to operate upon many axis of attack simultaneously. Such an operation is simply impossible without a USMC aviation element. For the USMC thinks ground in the air and the forces on the ground can rely 24/7 on USMC aviation forces to be with them in the ground fight.

An additional aspect of the expeditionary focus of the USMC is the central role of the seabase. In a famous moment in the initial Afghanistan operation, the USMC operated from ships to move deep inland to operate against the Taliban. Task Force 58 was in essence a seabasing operation as the USMC leadership sees it, and an example of what the USMC needs to be prepared and supported to do in the years ahead. Task Force 58′s (TF-58) combat operations in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in 2001 covered 450 nm to establish Camp “Rhino” and then operated over 750 nm to Kabul. Imagine even contemplating doing this with out integrated airpower!

The new air platforms fit into the overall approach taken by the USMC. The Osprey provides unique capabilities, which will allow the “ground” forces to engage in envelopment operations that Napoleon could only have dreamed about.

And in operations such as when the USMC flew their Osprey’s onto British warships demonstrating the versatility the USMC provides to maritime operations as well.

The F-35 will be a “first generation flying combat system” which will enable air-ground communication and ISR exchanges unprecedented in military history. The pilot will be a full member of the ground team; the ground commanders will have ears and eyes able to operate in a wide swath of three-dimensional space. (

But if other 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 repeat the failures 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 results. The new aircraft simply do not function, as do the old. Considerable cultural change will be required in moving away from reliance on the reachback to large aircraft and the centralized CAOC to distributed air operations and decision makers.

And the shift will require weapons and remotely piloted aircraft developers to think differently about how to leverage the new stealth-enabled distributed air operational capabilities. F-22 pilots have already called for the change.  They don’t want to be tethered to AWACS; they don’t want to be directed by the classic operations of a centralized CAOC. Another key part of the Cultural Revolution is the approach to maintainability.  To hear some Air Force officials they sound like the union members in the 1970s objecting to changes in the work force associated with digital production of the newspaper.  To recall the days of the controversy, union members wanted to keep their typesetting functions in spite of the elimination of the jobs necessary to produce a newspaper digitally.  They lost and Murdoch won.

The same is true of the shift from mechanical to digital maintenance regimes.

As General Corley, former ACC Commander, underscored, the new aircraft provide significant gains in sustainability and readiness, which, in turn, makes the new force more affordable from an operational point of view.

How could you ever argue against this digital world which yields more identification of fault if a fault does exist, helps you isolate where that fault is, helps you identify what in fact is going to be necessary to be done for maintenance. It is pooling that information in a careful protected manner, so that appropriate actors can interpret it, manipulate it back to those individuals responsible for the main incidents of support, but also could yield to the individual operator of that vehicle, whatever the impact of the fault happens to be. What are the ramifications? Operators would begin to understand they still have viability in the conduct of a mission that they’re currently performing.

Many jobs will be eliminated as the shift in the maintenance culture takes root– the USMC estimates 1/3 – and the tooth to tail ratio much improved.

The Administration’s ideological opposition to Performance Based Logistic systems is part of the problem of “union style” resistance to change.  The last Administration signed a PBL with the partners; the current Administration should honor it.  The benefits are clear; less cost for sustainment for a more capable aircraft.

In short, the U.S. and its partners are on the cusp of an airpower revolution if our leaders have the courage to embrace cultural change.  And there is a clear need to direct investments towards the future, not the past.  After all, this is change you can believe in.