The Emergence of the Z Axis: Re-Thinking the Impact of the F-35 (Updated)


09/05/2011 by Robbin Laird

In a Defense News op ed which I wrote several years ago, I introduced the concept of the F-35 as a flying combat system, not a fifth generation aircraft.  What I was highlighting was a shift from a generational understanding of the evolution of the aircraft which focused on stealth, to an understanding that what is carried INSIDE the aircraft coupled with the new physical characteristics of the aircraft provided a significant demarcation epoch in combat aviation history.

The evolution of the F-35 as a platform is best understood not simply as an evolution from F-18s, and F-16s in terms of the physical characteristics of the airframe and the ability of the aircraft to operate more effectively, but laying the foundation for an entirely new way to do air combat.  This new way is something we referred to as the “re-norming of airpower.”

And in introducing the “re-norming” concept, I highlighted the following:

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.


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And for the book go to

Ed Timperlake has found a better way to express the disruptive change associated with the F-35 and has introduced the z axis as a core discriminator.  Ed is a noted military aviation expert and has provided us with many insights on this website, and a way to look at the significant interaction between competitors in the evolution of combat aircraft.


The F-35 is not a linear performance enhancement from F/A-18 4th Gen; it has a third performance axis “Z” The “Z” axis is the pilot’s cockpit C4ISR-D “OODA” loop axis. The memo does not address this revolutionary point. Traditionally, the two dimensional depiction is that the x-axis is time and the y-axis is performance and captures individual airplanes that tend to cluster in generation improvement. Each aircraft clustered in a “generation” is a combination of improvements. Essentially, the aeronautical design “art” of blending together ever improving and evolving technology eventually creates improvements in a linear fashion.

The design characteristics blended together prior to F-35 have been constantly improving range, payload (improved by system/and weapons carried), maneuverability (measured by P Sub s), useful speed, and range (modified by VSTOL–a plus factor). The F-35 is also designed with inherent survivability factors-first redundancy and hardening and then stealth. Stealth is usually seen as the 5th Gen improvement.

But reducing the F-35 to a linear x-y axis improvement or to stealth simply misses the point. The F-35 is now going to take technology into a revolutionary three-dimensional situational awareness capability.  This capability establishes a new vector for TacAir aircraft design. This can be measured on a “Z” axis.

Historically, C3I was external to 1,2,3, and 4th Generations TacAir.  C3I’s goal was enhancing fleet wide combat performance for all Type/Model/Series (T/M/S) of TacAir. This is the modern AWACS battle concept.  Now using a three-dimensional graph the “Z-axis” takes airpower into a totally different domain. The shift is from externally provided C3I to C4ISR-D in the cockpit carried by the individual air platform. This is the revolutionary step function that breaks the linear progression of previous Generations. The “Z” axis in which the F-35 is the prototype for the first “C4ISR –D (for decision) cockpit”

The focus is upon the cockpit and the integrated systems, which the pilot can use in the cockpit to become a distributed decision-maker.  We have referred to the F-35 cockpit as enabled by an integrated combat systems enterprise, which allows the pilot to see 360 degrees around the aircraft and manage that space to more than 800 miles.

This is the Z axis in action.

As “Toes” Bartos put it:

SLD: So, the difference would be the classic aircraft is an additive structure, whereas this is a flexible architecture that allows the F-35 to operate like a smart phone.

If I’ve got a traditional aircraft and I’m adding to it, there’s no interaction among the systems.  The pilot would have to be looking at the displays and making the interaction happen.  With the F-35, we’re describing a variety of tools that interact with one another so the pilot doesn’t have to spend a lot of time doing that.

Bartos: I think that’s a great summary.  You’re not passing on raw data and making the pilot the integrator.  You’re taking the sensor data from mutually supportive sensors, the architecture is integrating the data, and you’re presenting actionable information to the F-35 pilot.

During my combat missions over Iraq, the enemy was constantly shooting at me from the ground. I spent 90 percent of my time staring outside, scanning the ground and horizon for SAMs and anti-aircraft artillery, and 10 percent doing the F-15 air-to-air radar mission.  That’s about all I could process.

The F-35 is going to do that scanning and processing for you, so you can determine how to most effectively employ or position the aircraft and create the battlefield effects you’re looking for.

In Iraq, it sure would have been better to have the aircraft just tell me if and when someone was shooting at me, from where, and with what type of weapon.  Better still would be to have fed the threat coordinates directly to my weapons or offboard to my wingman to enable the immediate return of fire, like the F-35 will be able to do.

The aircraft has revolutionary capabilities along the z axis which allow an entirely new way to conduct air combat or combat enabled by airpower.

The F-35 provides the foundation; new approaches to connectivity provides the glue.  We have referred to the shift from the old to the new as shifting from fleet managed networks, whereby C4ISR capabilities are provided by a fleet, to distributed C4ISR D nodes forging a honeycomb.

Through connectivity for the new aircraft, the U.S. can create a honeycomb with distributed decision makers able to shape a chaos generating strike capability that is predicated on the unique environment that is ever changing from one mission to the next.

As a former senior USAF officer described it:

Now with the 360-degree sensor coverage that comes from both better onboard sensors and the ability of the 5th gen platforms to share sensor data amongst them providing advanced situational awareness, you’re not tethered to traditional tactics. Instead of two airplanes filling one piece of the sky, I only need one; and that plane’s covering a bigger piece of the sky.  And now I can have my wingmen and other flight elements further out extending the friendly presence in the battlespace while simultaneously restricting the enemy’s use of the same.  By moving independently we can be much more flexible than before.

For C2 you obviously need to know where your planes are; you need awareness of where your own forces are operating.  You need a common operational picture (COP), which is given both by what you can see from deeply penetrating an adversaries battlespace as well as what can communicated to the point of spear within that battlespace.

And you will adjust what you do with the COP. Your common operational picture may or may not include enemy tank forces.  If your only mission is to get rid of SAMs today, you don’t really care and you can take those off your scope.

But the next day, your mission may be a Libya mission where you’re out there and supposed to be finding the tanks.  You need the ability to put those on your scope. You need to be able to communicate where all these things are because you don’t know ahead of time what your mission is going to be.  The networks need to be able to connect the disparate platforms and provide the right information at the right time to the users that need it.

This roving motorcycle gang, as it’s been called sometime, is essentially the freedom to maneuver.  It allows the human brain to look at what’s on the scope and provide dynamic direction.   The more SA you have concerning where your own forces are located and what their capabilities are, and the more you sense and can figure out what the enemy force is doing, then you can better take the optimal path of attack.

This approach can be contrasted with the legacy-preplanned mindset where we determine in advance our tactics and targets. It is more of a flow and shaping of tactics against the reality of the evolving battlespace environment and enhancing your ability to complicate the adversaries approach to defense.

With the honeycomb enabled by the F-35, shifts in battle tactics and approaches are enabled.  The wolfpack concept pioneered by Secretary Wynne or the leveraging approaches pioneered by Lt. General (retired) Deptula can be forged, enabling the US and its coalition partners to stay ahead in the global competition, a competition that can have deadly consequences if you lose.

The misunderstanding of what the F-35 brings to the global competition is significant; the Super Hornet may or may not be a a 4.8 generation aircraft.  That is a discussion of the x and y axis.  But from the z axis point of view the Super Hornet is not a player.

It can also be noted that the three variants of the F-35 all use common systems to deliver the capabilities on the Z axis; this is a crucial development.  And the use of common software allows upgrades across the fleet of F-35s, not service by service or plane by plane.  This means that the Z axis is part of the maintenance and sustainment revolution associated with the F-35 as well.

Note: Comments by F-35 pilots highlight some of the capabilities which we have focused on in this article and are worth listening to.  For the associated article and credits for the video go to

Updated August 27, 2011

An F-18 pilot discussed the impact of the shift from a fleet to a cockpit in executing C4ISR D or in the terms of this article the Z axis in the following video shot at a recent USMC exercise in North Carolina.

Secretary Wynne, a key architect of the entire approach to re-thinking the role of tactical aircraft around the 5th generation concept, commented as follows:

This begins to coalesce around ‘Spherical Situation Awareness’. Bringing in the ‘Z’ axis is an important stroke that allows interoperability re-engagement across the force. If we can get sensors to share, and leverage our precision system; we have enough persistence in platform positioning instruments that we can align off of each other and fight in degraded environment.

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