F-35As to Korea: Shaping a Defense Transition


11/22/2011 – by Michael W. Wynne

There has been much said about the cost structure for the current premier program for re-building airpower, the Joint Strike Fighter.  Though the Trillion Dollar moniker was rapidly debunked for its more definitive view on inflation in general than for any accuracy as to the actual cost for the F-35.  I made mention to a serving official that there was only one thing more expensive than having a first rate Air Force; and that is having a second rate Air Force.

As we now see the shallowness of the arguments to dismiss ‘next-war-itis’ as a pejorative; and a return to the true purpose of the current serving officials which is to look out a decade or two; and prepare the nations defenses for the newly emerging strategic situation.  Though harsh in its truthiness; going into global operations with the forces you have is a reality; and given the potential for a quick strike engagement and then suing for peace; as happened in South Ossetia, Georgia; and looking back at some early World War Two scenarios, makes having any forces forward either be the best; or be sacrificed.

F-35As for Korea; Strategic Changes Generated from 3 Squadron Deployment (Credit Photo: Lockheed Martin)F-35As for Korea; Strategic Changes Generated from 3 Squadron Deployment (Credit Photo: Lockheed Martin)

There is much more now to be said about the performance of the F-35. There have been several tests and even some operational concepts thought through enough to merit mention.   The Joint Maintenance School at Eglin AFB and its interest in conducting competitions to perfect the pit stop type mentality for cross service operations is a gem of a story.  The Marine Corps has now used the WASP exercise to conduct timed arrivals and departures; and finds that they can now simulate truly aggressive actions; and then support them with vertical envelopment.  This was employed in Libya to extract a downed pilot; and it was clear that in the company of fourth generation fighters; it was a successful operation; but in the company of a hovering fifth generation aircraft; the increase in confidence would be measurable.

The interesting question posed then is how might an Amphibious Ready Group with just a minimum of fifth generation fighters, such as the in production F-35B, have cleared the way; and easily opened the airspace, and can that same operational philosophy be used against current or future Integrated Air Defense Systems?

The US Air Force doesn’t have to look far for testing. There is a major opportunity for engaging with the Marines within the Nellis Range; and beginning to exercise the 1000 ship Air Fleet against the most sophisticated defense we can muster; perhaps even the F-22; and wring out revolutionary operational concepts to extract more from each model than it individually possesses.

What would we discover; perhaps a validation of the current reality for the USN of trading distance for effectiveness. Just how much of the Littorals are closed to naval Aviation absent a fifth generation escort.  In this inland synthetic sea where tests would substitute for friendly losses; there could as well be advanced Exocets (perhaps those that the US fields) which, when combined with the outreach by Integrated Air Defenses might initiate argue for elimination of some coverage of inland seas; defining or coping with a reduction in Carrier Units for which the drumbeat becomes louder everyday.

At the same time and place; these tests could test the real opportunity to combine sensors and shooters from different media; and really ask can an Aegis Destroyer or Cruiser be a ‘wingman’ to a F-35?

The cross service or Joint nature of the F-35 makes it the first Goldwater-Nichols Platform; it is a “flying combat system” able to pass targets into the Command Network; and allowing the right shooter to be aligned with appropriate targets. Thus if the detected target merits a larger punch; perhaps that is what the ship borne fire center can do when alerted.  Many is the chart that illustrates the ‘lightning bolt’ connection, managed by a Battle Manager in an undisclosed location.  The F-35 provides the reality to this chart.

In a previous piece, I argued that there was a time to applaud the concept of having 4 and a half acres of sovereign American Territory anywhere in the world you wanted to put it.  At the time the question was, now that it is there, what to do with it? Why proscribe and therefore limit the mission?

One can see the day coming when the Aviation Module is added at the time the mission becomes aggressive; otherwise the mere presence of the Carrier can be an instrument of diplomacy; and not overtly threatening.   In fact, the story of the Carrier in a very humanitarian scenario did not take away from the prospect of converting it back to its first conceptual purpose.

With the danger posed in some of its patrols; why offer the total package to the threat of a comprehensive and quick strike; rather one should position it to reflect the present state of relations with a reserve of power projection.

The Nature of the power projection should be taken separately. Does the Air Power from a Carrier match up to the Integrated Air Defenses of a potential rival?  This too can be well modeled at Northern Edge and examined, rather than simply experienced by force of combat.  With all the exercise capability that is available; the Command Authorities can know with some certainty outcomes; as we have progressed far from the simpler times of the Lanchester Equations; though as one wag put it.  With the projected age of the fleet; it portends a future where instead of the Missouri pounding the Vietnamese Coast; it would have been the Maine; is the same true for Air Power?

There is a theater of operations that should remain an immediate concern and provide an understanding of the way ahead.  That would be the Korean Theater.  Here we have in the heart of the Pacific; a line of battle that has experienced enemy fire this year.   The Korean Theater has seen the US Army decreased and pulled back to a more effective defensive line, with full knowledge of the South Korean Authorities.  The exchange of artillery fire was a dramatic reminder to the population of the aggressive nature of their fellow peninsular citizens.

It does however provide a cold dose of reality to the Air Forces of both the Korean and UN forces; which, of course, are really United States Forces.  Both sides daily secure situational awareness of the others defenses; and prepare for aggression that day; that week; and certainly that year.

Given the current disposition of forces; it seems clear that the expectation of a quick strike and call for peace is a part of the planning.  It would seem that in such an aggressive atmosphere; with the Integrated Air Defenses available; what should be the plan for the United States Air Force would seem to rapidly transition the aging Air Fleet to the newest fighter.

Generating a New Defense Approach in South Korea Can Allow the US to Foster Change in the Worldwide Force Structure (Credit Image: Bigstock)
Generating a New Defense Approach in South Korea Can Allow the US to Foster Change in the Worldwide Force Structure (Credit Image: Bigstock)

This is clearly the theater of highest utility for the emerging F-35.  With the F-22 to be the guardian of the Pacific Expanse; and perhaps even used in a partnership with the F-35, and the ROKAF forces.  This would have the highest probability of training as a ‘1000 Unit Air Fleet’ and the ROKAF, equipped as they are with terrific fourth generation fighters; would yearn to be protected and supportive of this Air Battle Management System proposed and promoted for the F-35.


One can as well see in the Korean Theater where in lieu of Aegis; can Army systems connected via a C2 system as well be the wingman for the F-35A’s/B’s or CV Versions.  Service identified targets that will be well within the range of tactical missiles currently fielded and/or well into their design cycle.

With the width of the Peninsula inside the range of Naval Missiles, one can see the real need is off-boarding targets and serving them appropriately.  Real Time Bomb Damage Assessment and even real time Psych warfare may reduce population losses, as all are aware that Regime Loyalty is strongest at the top.

Frankly; the operational concepts born in this crucible for combat; the training; the turnaround for weaponeers, training for both a stealth and non-stealth operational elements; and the maintenance construct seem ideal for an early if not the first deployment for this new highly capable fighter. If there remains a belief in peace through strength; this would illustrate it best.

Three squadrons of F-35A’s deployed throughout South Korea; would relieve the current US Air Structure; be more survivable and have a greater impact on how to best use and distribute across the Air Space; this capability.  The savings in manpower and support costs would as well be large.  Though this appears to be a minimum number; it would force a reassessment of how to prosecute the engagement to either deter or dominate; and as well initiate integration with the very capable Republic of Korea Air Force as a template for true coalition integration in other theaters of operation.

There is already a tremendous respect for the capability of the South Korean Army. Their support in the current engagements has enhanced their skills.  They can and should be connected to their own fighter fleet as our JTACS are today; and a sharpening of the skills to include target sharing across the US and UN force structure would prove enormously powerful; and send a unique message around the world as to integrated capability.

This early deployment would as well bolster our position across the Pacific; as South Korea would be then seen as an anchor point for operations from Alaska to Australia.  Australia is to receive their tranche of F-35’s in the out years; and would be thrilled to mix and match pilots into the Korean operating theater.

In many ways, this would be seen as a major strategic move by America; and support as well redeployment by the Us Navy and Marines throughout the Pacific.  As with any show of force; the primary mission would be to deter aggression; and the secondary mission would be to counter regional threats; and provide a supporting force for American and Allied forces in harms way.  With what has been inferred for the current state of Naval Aviation; this might be an imperative until they secure their own Fifth Generation Fighter, the F-35CV.

What is truly interesting as the Nation lurches toward self disarmament; perhaps all the services need a cleansing where they readily discard; like spent rifles; the weapons that have secured the peace; and now stand those down as we did the liberty ships; and begin to truly equip for modern war.  Where are the Jobs; truly building for modern war is jobs by the tens of thousands.

F-35As Deployed with USMC F-35Bs Provide Synergy from the Sea and From the Land and Support Transformation of the Ground Forces Capabilities As Well (Credit Image: Bigstock)
F-35As Deployed with USMC F-35Bs Provide Synergy from the Sea and From the Land and Support Transformation of the Ground Forces Capabilities As Well (Credit Image: Bigstock)

How to guard the peace becomes far less of an issue when the Nation is markedly and perhaps awkwardly aware that the peace of the future will not be secure until the adversaries and competitors of the future are deterred as well as we have done in the past.  The mad scramble to accomplish this should best occur when there is peace around; as we built the Carriers in the 30’s for war in the 40’s; and submarines in the 50’s that patrol our seas today; and Missile Defense during the 80’s and 90’s while our enemies were designing their own fleet of missiles and Nuclear Weapons.

Absent this vision is the concept advocated by many; transition; a slow and steady march to confront future war with a combination of the force you have and the force you might have someday.

Training in the combative atmosphere like Korea therefore becomes the best crucible for forcing the transition rapidly and using that effort as a key element for defense reform and integration of the US services in a more effective force, Exercising as our forces can at Northern Edge; and the Nellis Range are not Game Time Flyovers; but illustrations of lethal combat piecing together first rate forces from what we have.

Remember the Maine; became Remember the Arizona; then the Berlin Brigade became the obvious trip wire–and they knew it–and next —pick one of the Carriers and minimize its risk–they know it as well.