Understanding the Basic F-35: What is in the Baseline Aircraft? (Updated)

The F-35B aboard the USS Wasp during the October 2011 Ship Trials (Credit: SLD)

The F-35 represents a new approach to the development, production, system and sustainment of a fleet of combat aircraft.  Additionally, the F-35 takes an innovative approach to collaborative upgrades over the airframe and global fleet’s life cycle.

Too often an understanding of the basic aircraft rolling out of production right now is lost in the shuffle. With one exception, the jets in assembly at Lockheed Martin’s F-35 facility in Fort Worth are not test aircraft.

They are production aircraft are the immediate forerunners of the IOC USMC aircraft.  Put another way, what will the F-35B as a flying sensor system be able to do right out of the box?

And one must remember that the upgrading capability is built into the aircraft, or put another way the aircraft both as platform and FLEET is inherently upgradeable.

But not fully grasped is that the first F-35s are already superior aircraft to any plane they are designed to replace.

To discuss the baseline or vanilla F-35, Second Line of Defense talked with a former F-16 pilot and USAF Academy graduate Dr. Mike Skaff who has worked with Lockheed Martin throughout the F-35’s development and production process.

In the course of the discussion with Dr. Skaff, 9 key elements built into the aircraft were identified as defining the baseline aircraft.

  1. A new cockpit and helmet which enable the pilot to function as a tactical decision maker;
  2. A fusion engine which brings together and integrates the core combat systems on the F-35;
  3. The fusion engines are designed to share information across the combat enterprise, or put in other terms each plane is synergy enabled;
  4. The plane is built as a weapon system built on a foundational architecture of chip and software upgradeability;
  5. The software is built to shape a mangeable workload for the pilot;
  6. Stealth is built into the aircraft and is a core enabler for the entire aircraft;
  7. As a flying combat system, the F-35’s advanced agility is a key enabler of combat operations;
  8. The power plant of the F-35 enables a long term growth strategy for the fusion engine. Unlike unmanned aircraft, where the power plant is devoted to flying the aircraft resulting in less than optimal sensor and weapons loading, the F-35 has significant growth possibilities;
  9. The F-35 can fire a full gamut of legacy weapons but lays the foundation for the next generation of weapons as well.

SLD: Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Skaff: I was an F-16 pilot out of the Air Force Academy. I was prior enlisted, and I’ve been with Lockheed Martin for about 23 years working on the F-35 cockpit since ’95. I flew out of MacDill, Shaw, and Luke during the Cold War.

SLD: The cockpit enables the pilot to function as a tactical decision maker, which makes lots of sense from a fighter pilot perspective. So what is it about the basic cockpit that you get with the basic plane that makes this plane different?

Skaff: When we designed the cockpit, we started with a design philosophy called “return the pilot to the role of tactician.” And the reason we did that was because while the F-16 I flew and the F-15 and the Gripen the Rafale, are all good airplanes, managing their sensors overloads the pilot.

Rather than doing tactical things, the pilot spends his time controlling and tilting radars. So we said, “We’ve got to get away from that. We’ve got to return this pilot to the role of tactician and let advanced processors and fusion do the kinds of things that they can do really well that just burden the pilot.”

In other words, let computers do what computers do best and let pilots do what pilots do best.

Computers can do algorithmic functions extremely well and fast.  Pilots do heuristic ‘thinking’ very well, but only when they have time to do it.  We’ve got to return time to the pilot.”

And so with that philosophy, we wanted to make sure that the airplane gave the pilot situational awareness and a manageable workload.

SLD: So you’re getting a basic cockpit for each platform in a fleet of cockpits built into the fleet. And this cockpit is built on a man machine interface and this man machine interface gives you the second capability, which is the fusion “engine”, which brings together and integrates the core combat systems on the F-35. So talk a little bit about the fusion “engine” and the relationship to the fusion “engine” to the cockpit.

Skaff: The fusion “engine” is the heart of the airplane and is the core capability enabler  which gives the pilot the situational awareness and the manageable workload.

It is gathering all of this information that is external to the airplane through the sensors fusing, correlating them and giving the pilot a single picture that’s very easy to interpret.

SLD: What’s the advantage of this fusion “engine” bringing together multiple things that have really been historically stovepiped?

Skaff: It does three things for us, and the first one is that it presents an easy way to interpret big picture of the view outside of the airplane.

The second thing it does is tasks the sensors to fill in missing data, and the third thing it does is share this picture with everybody on the network.

And so for the very first time, we’re all seeing the same picture.

In the previous generation airplanes, we may have had a radar warning display and a radar display and some other federated sensor display, now we have one display with the entire picture on it.

SLD: So you are arguing that the combination of the new cockpit display and helmet with the fusion engine creates a new situation for the pilot. It’s sort of like looking at your iPad screen and pushing the application you think you need for the task at hand rather than having to integrate in your head 25 applications in order to be able to know which button to push. Is that a fair analogy?

Skaff: Yes, that’s exactly right.

SLD: Let us discuss an additional capability inherent in the baseline aircraft. The fusion engine allows you to share information across the combat enterprise or another way to look at it is each plane is synergy-enabled. Talk a little bit about what’s happening already with the plane?

Skaff: In our fourth gen airplanes, like F-15 and F-16s, there’s a little bit of synergy, but it’s only the synergy that the pilots can come up with talking on the radio. Because we’re sharing this picture and sharing some sensor tasking through the network, we have synergy built into the aircraft.

This means that the information we are sharing has significantly greater combat value added than we used to have.

It means that you and I can get airborne and we get more than the sum of the parts, and we get two radars operating at the exact same time.  You may be looking high and I’m looking low, but we both get the benefit now of a bigger picture view.

SLD: In effect, using your approach, the F-35 is a “flying synergy system.”

Skaff:  That is a good way to put it.

SLD: But is that fair to say the radio would be the center piece of sharing in the legacy system and with the F-35 it is a shared COP. You’re going from a radio to the COP, the Common Operating Picture. Is that fair?

Skaff: That’s exactly right.

And previous to this, you and I, we would build the picture verbally and you would try to explain to me as a young wingman what you’re saying and what am I saying and you would try to correlate battle space and we would, in our minds, build a picture.

Now we have computer power that can build the picture for us. And we can discuss from the same COP which we both can see and share knowledge.

SLD: One thing that we know for sure is not widely understood is that the plane really isn’t a plane, it’s a weapon system and it’s built on the foundation of a chip and software upgrade ability.

Put another way, the architecture is built from the ground up so that chips can be swapped out and software can be upgraded.

Let’s talk a little bit about the importance of chip and software upgradability compared with the classic approach to upgrading combat aircraft.

Skaff: From the beginning, we designed an airplane that would take tech refreshes, and we’ve already had a couple of tech refreshes during the System Development and Demonstration or SDD phase.

We knew the technology would change and we would upgrade both hardware and software in this early phase, and we planned ahead for that.

In previous airplanes, sometimes we didn’t plan for that. We would build the airplane and then decide after the fact: Well, we need to upgrade the new hardware and new software.

Because it wasn’t planned for upgradability, it cost us as taxpayers quite a bit more and took longer to do, but now we’ve planned for tech refresh.

It is similar to what you find with your computer at home knowing that you could swap out a better graphics card in the future because you picked a bus that was going to be around for a while. And when you were ready, you went to Best Buy and you bought the next card for your graphics processor.

Another aspect, which is important to understand, is that this chip and software architecture is common to all variants of the aircraft, the three U.S. services and the global F-35 partners as well.

Although the airframes are different between the A, B, and the C, the software inside, the sensors inside, the pilot vehicle interface is identical.  It is sort of like Intel inside for basic computers.

As a result, we get economies of commonality and we get the economy of scale and so we will all, the U.S. services and our partners, upgrade simultaneously and share the benefit.

SLD: An additional aspect of the basic airplane is stealth.  For many, stealth is the DEFINING characteristic, which makes it a 5th generation aircraft, but in reality it is an enabler for a very different approach to sensor synergy integration.

What role does stealth play in the equation?

Skaff:  From the war fighter point of view, at least for now, it gives me more time. I can get closer before the enemy knows I’m there or I can get away from somebody easier.

And that’s part of our asymmetry, the stealth that’s built into the airplane.

Then there is the manufacturing aspect. The tolerances are so tight that the entire manufacturing process enables stealth. It makes a better product, better tolerances.

It is an enabler of the other capabilities of the aircraft, rather than being the defining characteristic.

SLD: The other part of stealth that’s not completely understood it is not simply a coating. It’s how the engines are built in. It is the fact that one doesn’t have to put weapons external unless one chooses to do so. It is because the sensors are built in a certain way. The radar  and associated combat suites are built into the nose cone in a specific way.

So in a certain sense the seventh factor is that the F-35 is a very agile fighter,  And agility is a key enabler of combat operations.

Skaff: Agility from a fighter pilot point of view is fighter performance.  A classic example was the YF-23. It was a phenomenal interceptor, but that’s all it could do. It couldn’t turn. It didn’t have great agility, fighter performance.

They went too far with the stealth enabler, and you had an extremely stealthy airplane, but they paid for it in lack of fighter performance. There’s got to be a balance there.

The B2 is another example.  It is extremely stealthy and a fantastic airplane. As far as I know, it’s never been tracked by anybody.

But if anybody should see it, particularly by an enemy fighter, they’d be in real trouble. They have adapted by flying at night and hopefully denying a visual acquisition.

We’re not going to have that problem in an F-35.

SLD: The agility is part of your survivability. The stealth is part of your survivability. Survivability is a function of multiple variables. It’s not simply an attribute to stealth alone is your point.

Skaff: That is exactly right.

SLD: The eighth factor built into the basic plane that is often overlooked is the power plant in the F-35.

And one thing it’s not completely understood when people are comparing UAVs to manned aircraft is the impact of the power plant of a fighter aircraft in driving a lot of sensor capability.  For UAVs, as significant capacity of the power plant is just for flying the airframe and the rest for the sensors and it’s not very large form fit anyway.

So talk a little bit about the power plant for the F-35 and its role and impact on the capability of the F-35 as a weapon system.

Skaff: For the war fighter point of view, this is the largest single engine fighter ever produced. It produces a tremendous amount of thrust and also from the pilot point of view, it doesn’t require pilot management.

Engine technology has gotten better and better and now they’re controlled by the FADECs, the Full Authority Digital Engine Controllers, the pilot can just command thrust with the throttle however he or she likes to. It doesn’t matter.

You don’t have to manage the engine and so it kind of goes back to this workload reduction. You do whatever you want and Pratt & Whitney will take care of the engine.

From the maintainer point of view, it’s relatively easy to maintain, easy to remove and replace, especially important on a carrier deck or on an LHD where there’s not much room at all. It only takes some minimal set of tools to do that.

SLD: The F-35 is a single engine fighter.  Would it be better to have two engines?

Skaff: At the heart of the answer is rather simple: Engine reliability has grown to such a level that one engine is more than sufficient.

SLD: Finally, let us address the capability of the F-35 to carry weapons.  Clearly, the plane will be able to carry most legacy weapons but is well positioned for the next generation of weapons as well.

Could you speak to the weapons aspect of the basic plane?

Skaff:  It was designed to carry just about every weapon that a legacy airplane could carry, F-16 for instance. We have a combination of internal and external carriages.

Stealth is important during the first few days of an operation when you’re busting down the integrated air defense system. Under those circumstances, you would carry your weapons internally. And in fact, your internal weapons payload is just about the same as an entire F-16 complement of weapons on all of its stations. So the F-35 can do really well in that regard.

If you’re not worried about stealth, we can carry external weapons. In fact, we can carry 18,000 pounds of weapons total.

When I first started flying the F-16, that’s what the airplane weighed; 18,000 pounds. So it’s like carrying an entire F-16 on the wings and internal. We can also have 18,000 pounds of internal fuel in the airplane and so you can take your F-35 fully loaded with internal fuel and external weapons and it’s like carrying two F-16s on the airplane.

And of course internal has many advantages other than stealth, which goes back to our flexibility and performance and agility. I can be fully loaded and still have an airplane that has easy supersonic capability, that is still very maneuverable whereas we put all those weapons external on an F-16 or F-18 and now it takes away all of that fighter performance.

SLD: And the basic plane, which you have described in terms of 9 basic parameters, is coming off of the assembly line today.

Skaff:  The airplane’s coming off the assembly line right now at low rate of initial production. The airplanes we’re talking about have all the hardware in them, and they will have the complete software package in the near term to do everything we’ve talked about.

The first block two software is flying now and eventually the Marine’s will go IOC with that since they’re going to go IOC first.

But everything we talked about are in those airplanes that are coming off the assembly line. The future is ready now.

SLD: A final point.  Could you explain software upgradeability to our readers?

Skaff: We talked about the iPad and the fact that Apple has you stuck in a throwaway mode. They come out with this new retina display iPad and a lot of people will throw away their iPad 2 and go for the better hardware and better software, an extremely nice device. There’s no doubt about it, but it’s expensive.

As opposed to the Kindle Fire, their approach has been different.

So they have a relatively low cost, half the price, hardware and they have upgraded the software repeatedly to give new features. So they initially introduced a piece of hardware that they could build upon. They’ve done that effectively, and they have attracted the crowd that wants an eReader or some device, but they don’t want to spend for an iPad.

For an overview of the fusion “engine” see the article by Ed Timperlake


Credit Photos: Featured Image is an F-35 flying over Eglin AFB and credited to Lockheed Martin.  The graphic and F-35B photo are credited to Second Line of Defense.

For two white papers which provide further detail on the F-35 cockpit see



For two white papers which look at the advanced fusion engine for the F-35 see



For a white paper which looks at the impact of synergy enablement in shaping a Common Operational Picture usable across the fleet see


The impact of these capabilities is to shape a workable workload for the pilot.  For a white paper which discusses this development see


The F-35 as a 21st Century fighter from the ground up rather than focusing on stealth as an outer garment see



The F-35 and the approach to using current or legacy weapons see


For a look at how the F-35 provides a foundation for the evolution of air delivered weapons see,


For a presentation on how software upgradeability is shaped by the F-35 see


And for a special report which draws toghether the interview and the white papers into a single document