The F-35 as a “Flying Sensor Fusion Engine”: Positioning the Fleet for “Tron” Warfare


By Ed Timperlake

The F-35 is often simply referred to as a tactical aircraft, and a replacement for 4th generation or legacy aircraft.  It is really something quite different.

It represents a dramatic shift from the past.  For the first time in history, individual F-35 pilots –A, B or C – will have the best database of real time knowledge in the history of combat aviation. And all of this is internal to their cockpit and enabled by advances in computer processing and sensor information fusing.

Each F-35 pilot combined with human sensing (seeing visual cues outside the cockpit) will be enabled by machine driven sensor fusion to allow combat “situational awareness” (SA) better than any other opponent.

Concurrent with their ability to look- see, which is limited by physical realities, the F-35 pilot will be able to “see” using cockpit electronic displays and signals to their helmet allowing them not to just fight with their individual aircraft but be able to network and direct engagements at 800+ miles in 360 Degrees of 3 dimensional space out to all connected platforms.

A fleet of F-35s will be able to share their fused information display at the speed of light to other aircraft and other platforms, such as ships, subs, satellites, and land based forces, including UAVs and eventually robots. Tactically,  “Aegis is my wingman, ”“SSGN is my fire support” will be developed for conventional warfare.

This enables a “tactical” aircraft to evolve into a key technology for strategic operations and impacts.

The value and confidence of timely information in combat is everything. One must always remember technology and con-ops are always relative against a reactive enemy. The enemy gets a vote, the game is not simply played by the friendly forces. The enemy will have a reaction and that will define the pace, nature and outcome of the conflict.

The Emergence of Tron Warfare

The F-35 is known as a 5th generation player in the state-of-the-art for both the Air-to-Air Fighter, and Air-to-Air Attack combat roles.

It also adds an “electronic” or “tron” warfare component to the fight.

Electronic Warfare (EW) is a complex subject with many discreet but also connected elements.

EW was designed inherently into the F-35 airframe and C5ISR-D Cockpit.

EW can include offensive operations to identify an opponents emissions in order to and fry spoof or jam their systems.  In successful “tron” war, often-kinetic kill weapons can be fired.  An F-35 can be a single sensor/shooter or off load it’s track to other platforms such as; planes, ships and subs and eventually UCAS-Unmanned Aerial Combat Systems.

The kinetic kill shot is usually a high speed missile designed to HOJ (home on jam). It has been said on the modern battlefield — air, sea or land — if not done correctly, “you emit and you die.”“aegis-is-my-wingman”/

Defensively in “tron war.” there are a lot of other EW issues such as; Electronic Counter Measures, (ECM), Electronic Counter Counter Measures, all things “Cyber War, ” which is a subject unto itself and is extremely complex and not well understood.

Electro Magnetic Pulse concerns (EMP), Infer-Red Sensing (IR) and always protecting “signals in space” of the friendly info being transmitted and as mentioned jamming the bad guys “signals in space,” all are key considerations in Tron Warfare.

What is necessary to succeed in evolving capabilities to fight in the age of Tron Warfare? In taking a lesson from history, pre-WWII AA&T long lines research found that in order to build and keep operational a U.S. phone system, the AT&T visionaries found that the key to success was the need for “robust and redundant” systems.

Two human Generations, later the F-35, was designed as being both inherently robust and redundant with many sensors and systems built into the airframe structure from initial design forward.  All the F-35 systems designed and developed sent “trons” into the aircraft cockpit “Fusion Engine.”  Trusted fusion information generated by inherent aircraft systems queued up electronically by threat will send to the cockpit displays, and the pilot’s helmet battle ready instantaneous Situational Awareness.

The Z Axis and the “Fusion Engine”

This is the beginning of a combat aircraft design that is building along a new axis-the “Z-axis.” The “Z axis” is a core discriminator. The F-35 aircraft 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 (for decision) loop axis. Starting at the beginning air fleet Command and Control from WWI on it has morphed into C5ISR (useful but getting silly) – Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat Systems, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance

Traditionally, in looking at the progression of aircraft a two-dimensional design depiction has been used; the x-axis is time and the y-axis is performance. That graph captures individual airplanes, but they do tend to cluster in generation improvement. Each aircraft clustered in a “generation” is a combination of improvements.

The aeronautical design “art” of blending together ever improving and evolving technology creates improvements in a linear fashion, if not performance would eventually go asymptotic.  The airframe 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), speed, and range (modified by VSTOL–a basing mobility plus factor).

The F-35 is also designed with inherent survivability factors, redundancy and hardening and  stealth. Stealth is usually seen as the 5th Gen improvement.

But reducing the F-35 to a linear x-y axis improvement 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, Command and Control (C&C) was external to 1,2,3, 4th and some 5th Generations of TacAir.  Now known as C5ISR  the goal was still enhancing fleet wide combat performance for all Type/Model/Series (T/M/S) of TacAir.

This is the current modern AWACS (hub and spoke) battle management concept.

But byusing a three-dimensional graph, one can understand that the “Z-axis” takes airpower into a totally different domain.

The shift is from externally provided C5ISR into C5ISR-D for decision into the cockpit. 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 is the first “C5ISR –D (for decision) cockpit.

A design focus of F-35 is the cockpit, and helmet displays of trusted fused integrated systems. Enabled with that technology the pilot can also be a distributed information decision-maker.

This is the Z axis in action and the enabler is the trusted “fusion engine.”



  • Multi-Function Array (MFA) or the AESA Radar
  • Distributed Aperture System (DAS)
  • Electrical Optical Targeting System (EOTS)
  • Electronic Warfare System.
  • CNI (Communications, Navigation and Identification System) — connected to the other combat systems via the high-speed data bus is the CNI which is a core and very flexible RF system that enables the aircraft to operate against a variety of threats.

The systems are built upon a physical link, namely a high-speed data bus built upon high-speed fiber optical systems.

The “Z-Axis” is the research vector for robust US and allied IR&D and R&D system upgrades.  Each individual sensor is focused on servicing the cockpit “fusion engine.”

This is where the fleet concept of “separate” airframes – As, Bs, and Cs – and across both US and Allied forces yields major breakthroughs and savings.  By forging diverse research streams into a common fusion engine, the inherent waste in doing research which then needs later to generate its own platform or is inherently designed for a specific platform with little global reach is obviated.

However, R&D research can go forward also independently on all systems feeding into this trusted fusion engine. This IR&D process can bring value based analysis and engineering on where to put specific emphasis and budget dollars on improving each system for best tactical pay-off.

This dynamic is moving combat system R&D research up the “Z-axis.”

It is an approach to ending stove piping while not closing off the dynamics of change which different systems can provide for future capabilities for the aircraft, the fleet and flying combat systems.

Re-Looking at The Evolution of Capabilities from a Z Axis Perspective

All sensor elements of F-35 T/M/S C5ISR-D cockpit are structured to build three Dimensional War fighting with the concept that “no platform fights alone.”

Ultimately, information will go up and out.  This is a fundamental rule for the Intelligence Community and will be a fundamental practice of the F-35 fleet.

This research path can drive 4th to 5th to 6th gen AA &AG weapon research. Currently 5th gen airframes are firing 4th Gen weapons at best.

Fusion engine sensors can drive unity of purpose “aim point” for world wide Defense firms/consortiums.

There is a huge R&D con-ops and training and tactic adjustment required to tie in with legacy systems. Perhaps vectoring the helmet might be cheapest way to promote this type of integration.

The F-35 “Z-Axis” is Symbol driven war fighting and thus language agnostic.

F-35 can network battle management with emerging UCAS systems and robots. UAVs are part of future of aviation NOT the future of aviation. This must be tested at Northern Edge EW exercise.

C5ISR-D Fusion engine is an inherent redundant aircraft and fleet “survivability” factor, as much as war fighting factor. It and can operate internally in the aircraft and off load an attack on one sensor to use the other sensor systems to keep the mission alive. This is cyber war inoculation and can be tested at Northern Edge

“UCAS V Tron warriors” This entire issue MUST be tested and understood. “Cyber” is now being used as a word weapon both pro and con to kill or justify systems and as an organization budget driver as much as a realistic threat. Positing the challenge of protecting everything protects nothing.

The PLA is modernizing its air and naval forces along a linear command directed “hub and spoke” (AWACS-is their key tell). US Air/Sea Battle can build”honeycomb” technology base/con-ops, which is a winning formula for Allies and US.

Against future hypersonic cruise missiles if F-35 did not exist it would have to be invented. Hypersonic cruise missiles are the biggest emerging realistic threat against the fleet and “others.” (Dr. Mark Lewis former Chief Scientist USAF). With nine minutes of incoming flight, seven minutes can be an eternity at speed of light. The F-35 is a component of focusing energy weapon, “tron” warfare capability and kinetic weapon research relevant to the task and is hence enhanced ship survivability in an operational theater.

The US and its Pacific allies can be their own relative reactive enemy if PLA gets hypersonic cruise missiles. An F-35 lighting up threats 800 miles out and vectoring our killer hypersonic cruise missiles will be a deadly first shot, the one that really counts


The F-35 sensor engine is a key element to fighting “Tron War.”  The F-35 seen as a fleet of capability provides an entirely new approach to cognitive learning for the warfighter.  Similar to Jean Piaget’s approach to understanding the cognitive learning of the child, the fleet learns as it fights and reaches different levels of competence and capabilities in dealing with the reactive enemy.

This point was driven home in a recent note made by Dean Ebert, a Naval Academy Grad, and former USMC pilot. Dean was one of the key sources of an interview done at the Paris Air Show in 2007 by Doug Barrie and Amy Butler when they were talking with General Trautman, then DCA of the USMC, about the future of Electronic Warfare.

Behavioral aspects of cognition are finding their way into architectures, processing, fusion, and distribution/collaboration of information nodes. Pulling your thread of increased processing power and open architectures — not to mention C4ISR-D and the Z-axis — we are now able to interact with our environment in a more “human” way.


By this I mean that we sense our environment, we understand it, we interact with it based on that understanding, and then as the environment changes we change with it.


Throughout this process, we allow our systems/networks to learn not only what it has sensed and which dials to turn to better interact, but to remember what they HAVE learned… then they can share that with other nodes that may have interests.


You could think of a automated equalizer for a stereo that adapts automatically to a room based on user defined preferences.

Cognitive computing/architectures will be necessary to combat the PLA threat… smaller, disposable “swarms” of sensors, non-kinetic/kinetic attack options will be essential to defeating the numbers of threats while minimizing the risk of our manned systems.


To this end, if JSF with it’s perception of the world, and ability to display/control information is able to direct or at least perceive what the swarms of intelligent sensors are doing, you’ve got yourself a true multiplier.


Each node in the battlespace must be a collaborator… it must be able to share it’s understanding of the environment as well as it’s sensed knowledge, it ALSO must be able to be interacted with… whether asked a question, pass along information, or change its mode of operation/aim point.


We don’t need to limit our non-kinetic (EW) options to a power game — EMS finesse is relevant. Also, with just a little imagination you could conceive of numerous ways to prosecute traditional targets from new and interesting angles.


All of this said, it is certain that our interaction with information will shape our ability to deter, engage, and defeat any enemy that may be identified.