The F-35: The Impact of a Global Fleet


7/1/12: by Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

Much of the Inside the Beltway debate about the F-35 revolves around the program as if it were simply building a replacement tactical aircraft PLATFORM.  In reality, the program was established to manufacture a global product in significant numbers to enable a global fleet, of unprecedented reach and impact.

There is nothing inevitable about this outcome.  If political processes in the United States pursuing concepts such as Sequestration lead to unsteady leadership and wide swings of funding, the promise will not be realized.  Nonetheless, the promise is not only inherent in the program but can already be seen in the early operational aircraft.

The global reach of the program is built on several foundations and capabilities.  This article looks at the core elements and how these elements interact with one another to create the foundation for a new approach to global reach.

The Baseline Global Aircraft: The Impact of Common Symbology in the Cockpit

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.

There are 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.

The key point is that these 9 key elements are the same for all three variants of the aircraft, and are common throughout the three U.S. military services buying the aircraft as well as allies buying those aircraft as well.

F-35As at Edwards AFB June 2011 (Credit: Lockheed Martin)
F-35As at Edwards AFB June 2011 (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

The impact of commonality across a fleet of aircraft is rarely discussed in terms of its tactical and strategic impact.  But it is significant.

Take the case of the common cockpit.

The absence of commonality and its impact was seen in the recent Libyan operation.  The countries involved could not even agree on what to call the operation.

  • NATO-“Operation Unified Protector”
  • Belgium-“Operation Odyssey Dawn” and/or “Operation Freedom Falcon”
  • Canada-“Operation Mobile”
  • France-“Operation Harmattan”
  • UK-“Operation Ellamy”
  • Spain- “Operation Odisea al Amanecer”
  • US–Italy, Denmark, Norway- “Operation Odyssey Dawn”-

Now the Air-order-of Battle by aircraft Type/Model/Series of fixed wing Fighter/Attack aircraft

  • Various block’s of F-16  (USAF, Royal Danish AF, Belgian, Royal Netherlands AF, Italy, Royal Norwegian AF, Turkey), US-F-15, A-10, AV-8, EA-18, B-2,
  • Canada-CF-18
  • French Air Force-Mirage (2000-5, 2000D), Rafael, Mirage F-1, Super Etendard
  • Italy-Tornado ECRs, Eurofighter, AV-8B
  • Spain-F/A-18
  • Sweden-JAS-39 Gripen
  • UAE-F-16 and Mirage 2000
  • United Kingdom-Tornado, Typhoon
  • Considerable effort also went into Aerial, Refueling, AWACS, and Maritime Patrol.
  • Finally, helicopters were extremely active and effective.

So a good Libyan War lesson learned is simple—current modern war, especially war in the air requires considerable planning, and high-level coordination, and extensive high end airborne assets for command and control to be effective.

Now imagine all combat pilots, from all allied countries having the same intelligence and situational awareness about the Battle Space in their individual cockpit. It gets even better — all pilots will have uniformly understood symbols and cockpit display icons that are not language specific. Much like the emerging universal road and other signage that are understood regardless of language.

The F-35 “C4ISR-D”  (D is for Decision) Common Combat capabilities in the individual cockpit has the potential to revolutionize the ability of an alliance fighting force.

All Fighter Pilots flying the F-35 across US services and allied Air Forces will concurrently operate from the same base line of evolving battle intelligence. The possibilities for new combat tactics for a decentralized yet unified air campaign are only limited by the operator’s imagination.

The achievable vision is that a USMC F-35B afloat will have the same SA as an airborne or strip alert USAF or allied F-35 pitching into the fight. The agility of such an Airpower force is unlimited compared to stovepiped technology — even fighting an air battle with emerging 5th Gen stealth being developed by Russians and Chinese.

Multi-National and Cross-Service Training and Combat Learning

The commonality inherent in the aircraft will be a baseline from which fleet understanding and concepts can be developed.  Such commonality is being shaped right now at Eglin Air Force Base and the F-35 training center.

There currently are two programs, which are shaping multinational learning as an inherent part of buying a common aircraft. This means that commonality and multi-nationality can go hand in hand.  For the F-35 this common multi-national training aspect is done initially at Eglin; for the A400M it is done in Seville, Spain.

Multi-national training is a core focus of the A400M and the F-35, and this common training facilities cross-fertilization of ideas of how to use a common fleet.  By establishing a common training facility, operators of the planes and the fleet will come back and teach in the training facility.  This has the inherent potential to accelerate combat learning as multi-national operators share experiences and re-write the training curriculum on an ongoing basis.

This will require cultural change.  Learning to work in an evolving digital age is normal for the I-Pad pilots who will fly, and enter into combat with the F-35; it is not the historical practice for the non-digital age.

The training at Eglin is for the maintainers and pilots.  And that commonality can over time be leveraged as well to re-shape thinking about the role of logistics in combat capabilities as well.  Again this is an inherent potential that needs to be realized in organizational practice, and does not happen by itself.

As Colonel Tomassetti, Deputy 33rd Fighter Wing Commander (Eglin Training Wing for the F-35) has commented:

Right and there is so much potential that comes from integration that’s more than just saving money.  It’s the potential interaction of students at this early level in their career with this new weapon system and all of the ideas that can come from that.

For organizations that are going to go fight jointly wherever we go, why on earth would we not choose to start the training process off with a joint and coalition setup.  We will look for new opportunities to get cross-service interaction.  We will look for new opportunities to get some cross-service buy-in and we start small; and we can find one thing that commonality allows us to do with this airplane that legacy airplanes, as an example, wouldn’t allow us to do.  Then we can argue “Hey, would you all be in agreement if we did this very small thing the same way?” and you start with something small and people agree, yes, and then you can build on that foundation.

As we have communicated to anyone who will listen, we believe that interoperability could start here at Eglin.  Take advantage of the weapon system commonality and adopt best practices available to us.  The interoperability that we want on the battlefield of tomorrow or in the disaster relief response of tomorrow:  that interoperability could begin here with integrated F-35 training.

Sustainability or the Digital Foundation for the Maintenance of the F-35

The approach to sustainability for the F-35 is built upon a new digital foundation.  It is designed more akin to new commercial aircraft – like the 787, A380, or A350 – than legacy combat aircraft.  Again, the digital revolution can lead to significant change in maintenance practices but only if it is accompanied by organizational change in how maintenance organizations operate.

A cautionary note is certainly warranted given the performance of the USAF with regard to the F-22.  The F-22 made a significant advance over legacy aircraft with regard to the role of digital data.  But the USAF maintenance organizations have not evolved with the inherent potential of digital systems.  The digital data generated for maintenance of the F-22 is actually translated backwards into the legacy USAF organization, on the mistaken notion that backward compatibility is the way to go .

With the new digital systems, one should approach these form the standpoint of pull not push.  The new systems define the need for new organizational approaches.  If we approached the tank revolution of the mid-30s as if they were horse cavalry well defeat at the hand of the Germans would have resulted.  Patton learned from the Germans; he did not have his tanks operate like horses.

The F-35 is the first combat aircraft to be built in numbers in the new digital age.  The plane speaks a universal language.  Because the F-35 was born at a time when DOD was keenly focused on implementing Unique Item Identification (UID) and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technologies, the plane was built from the start with modern logistics tool sets in mind.

In effect, this means that the aircraft speaks a universal or global logistics language.

This common language and the digital management, which is enabled by this language, allows for the F-35 fleet to be managed globally in an historically unprecedented manner.

The digital foundation for the maintenance of the F-35 is not about the platform; it is about the fleet.

The consequences of such an approach allows not only for significant cost savings over time but a significant change in the overall capabilities and approach to deployments.

To contrast now and in the future, there is no better example than the USAF surging three air wings to the Asia Pacific Region.  Now there would be a significant demand on the lift fleet to get the parts to the theater of operations in order to support the operations of the surged aircraft.  In the future, this surge demand can largely be eliminated.  By having hubs throughout the APR with stockpiles of parts – delivered in a steady manner by ship – and by having global transparency in the system, the USAF would know PRIOR to deployment what its support situation is in terms of supplies.

New platforms are built with a significant amount of attention to how to enhance their ability to be maintained over time.  When platforms were built thirty years ago, logistics support was an afterthought.  No it is a core element of determining successful outcomes to the manufacturing process.

Sustainability is a core requirement for 21st century air forces and air operations. Sustainability is a combination of logistics and maintainability considerations combined.  Designing a more sustainable product, which can operate fleet wide, should be one of the very core procurement principles.

Savings will come from pooling resources, something that cannot happen if you buy a gaggle of aircraft, rather than operating a common fleet.  Just ask Fed Ex what commonality for their fleet delivers in terms of performance and savings.

Re-Shaping the Development Approach: The Norwegian Example

At the heart of the advantages of the F-35 considered, as a fleet is the question of development costs and approaches.

For example, the recent selection by Norway of the F-35 highlighted the significance of Joint Strike Missile integration. A key element of the F-35 decision by Norway was the acceptance of the integration of a new Kongsberg missile onto the F-35 itself.

Through the development of the Naval Strike Missile (NSM), the Norwegian Armed Forces has established KONGSBERG and other Norwegian industry in the top tier as a supplier of long-range, precision strike missiles that will meet military requirements in a 20 to 30-year perspective.

It is of great importance that the US authorities have confirmed their support for the integration of the JSM on the F-35. In doing so, the operational needs of the Norwegian Armed Forces and international partners will be met. Furthermore, this will be an important contribution to the industrial content of the F-35 procurement. JSM is the world leader in its category and further strengthens the F-35′s operational capacity”, states Walter Qvam, CEO of KONGSBERG.

“KONGSBERG has involved a number of Norwegian subcontractors in the first phases of the JSM development. Today’s decision for the integration of JSM on F-35 open up new opportunities for a long-term Norwegian industrial success that may be worth as much as NOK 25 billion. In future full-scale production, the JSM programme could translate into 450 jobs at KONGSBERG and significant assignments for more than 100 Norwegian subcontractors for several decades”, comments Harald Ånnestad, president of Kongsberg Defence Systems.

As part of the JSM development program, new operational capabilities will be developed and tested for subsequent upgrading of KONGSBERG’s Naval Strike Missile (NSM). The NSM is now in production for the Armed Forces of Poland and Norway.–jsm–on-f-35,c9273622

Because many people do not understand the approach to the weaponization of the F-35 moving forward they might not understand the true impact of this development.

Historically, a Norwegian selection of an aircraft and a decision to integrate a missile on that aircraft would be largely for Norway or whoever else chose that aircraft and the series variant of that aircraft.  This would not likely be a large natural market.

With the F-35 the situation is totally different.

The F-35A to be purchased by Norway has the same software as every other global F-35, and so integration on the Norwegian F-35 provides an instant global marketplace for Kongsberg.  And the international team marketing the aircraft – is de facto – working for Kongsberg as well.

It is not hard therefore to understand why companies would like their weapons on this plane, notably as new 21st century weapons are developed.

According to Kongsberg:

The Naval Strike Missile (NSM) and the Joint Strike Missile (JSM) are autonomous, long-range, precision missiles designed to engage high-value, well-defended targets at sea and ashore.
The NSM can be launched from vessels or coastal systems while the JSM was specifically designed to be air launched.

It is very likely, for example, that Asian partners in the F-35 will find this capability to be extremely interesting and important.  And so Kongsberg’s global reach is embedded in the global reach of the F-35 itself.

All of this is facilitated by the nature of the software upgradeability built into the aircraft itself, which allows for a different approach to fleet upgrades and evolution.

As the USMC tactical aircraft requirements head commented recently:

The economies of scale that we get by combining the resources of the United States with the eight international partners are unbelievable.  I’m currently working on a follow-on development for future block up grade, the iPad that never gets finished.  It’s a billion dollar block of capability that we’re working on for the future.

The Marine Corps share that is 18 percent.  I’m going to get a billion dollar capable block aircraft.  Those kind of capabilities are capabilities I couldn’t buy that department of the Navy by myself.  The Air Force couldn’t buy it by itself.  Norway, Denmark couldn’t buy it by itself.

So, that’s just huge.  And demonstrates how important this program is to have the international partners that we have, and the potential for the foreign military sales of the other nations that are looking at the program….

This partnership allows us to leverage off each other to make this aircraft even more capable than we know it can be today.

Re-shaping Global Presence and Reach

The F-35 as a program can allow for the U.S. and its allies and partners to shape a new approach to global reach.

The F-35 global fleet allows two intersecting dynamics to re-enforce one another.

On the U.S. side, because allies are always forward deployed, the American power projection forces can link and scale in an unprecedented manner.  Notably, in those countries deploying both Aegis and F-35s, a symbiotic whole of offense and defense to deal with missile threats will be deployed.

On the allied side, reach back to U.S. and other allied forces is facilitated by the commonality of the global fleet, and the deterrent value of scalability of forces built in.

Given the significant commonality among the three types of F-35s, logistics and support hubs can be built throughout the globe in the partner countries. The differences among naval air and air force air are significantly blurred by the commonality of the F-35s.

This means that specific support for the As, Bs, and Cs could be generated.  Based on the earnings from a logistics hub, the partners will also be able to pay for a significant part of their own fleet modernization.

And a hub is not a permanent base.  As an on-call service facility, the various allies can draw upon support when they are working with the partner’s regional security missions.

By having a diversity of supply HUBS throughout the APR, not only would partner countries have capability but the U.S. would not have to concentrate its supplies in simply its own bases. So potential adversaries wishing to cripple the USAF would now have to consider the entire global basing of the F-35s as a problem.

Never has a logistic system been such an essential part of DETERRENCE than the F-35 fleet concept.

The Z Axis, the Honeycomb and Re-Shaping Global Reach

The capability of the combat systems inside the F-35 coupled with its stealth profile enables a very different approach to organizing the battlespace.  Instead of a linear ISR organized battlespace, the F-35 enables a 360 degree situational awareness strike and defense enterprise.  A fleet of F-35s enables a different approach to warfighting very appropriate to the kind of reach and capability needed in the 21st century power projection enterprise.

The fusion engine which synergizes the 5 core combat systems of the aircraft provides a new vector of a tactical aircraft – namely the Z axis. 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.

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 F-35 is not a linear performance enhancement over legacy or fourth generation fighter aircraft. When one considers information and the speed at which it can be collected, fused, presented and acted upon in the combat environment, those who possess this advanced decision capability will be clearly advantaged.

While this is not a new concept having been originally conceived in the famous Boyd “OODA” loop, the information dimension of combat aircraft design now is so important that it forces us to guage the value of such a weapon system along a third dimension, the “Z” axis. The Z axis is the pilot’s cockpit “OODA” loop axis or his ability to observe, orient, decide and act.

This ability is measured as the combined capability the pilot gains from integrated command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and his resultant decision making and employment or action. From Boyd’s theory, we know that victory in the air or for that matter anywhere in combat is dependent on the speed and accuracy of the combatant to make a decision.

The better supported the pilot in a combat aircraft is by his information systems, the better the combat engagement outcome. The advantage goes to the better information enabled. Pilots have always known this was true but the revolutionary advancement 5th Generation, designed in C4ISR-D requires a similar advancement in how pilots approach their work.

By building a platform, which is built around a Z axis or is CISR D enabled, the fleet can operate significantly differently from the past.  In the past, linear air operations provided for sequential battle rhythm.  The AWACS and other battle management elements operated at the rear of the air battle while the combat elements – each specialized or focused within a narrow band of its multi-mission capabilities – performed their tasks.

With the F-35, the deployed force is distributed and capable of operating together into a cohesive whole or broken into independent elements in which clusters of F-35s can provide synergy to an element of a honeycomb.  A honeycomb can become the image of a power projection force interconnected between the US and allies, or among allies themselves.

A new Pacific strategy can be built in significant part around the cultural revolution which the new F-35 engenders in terms of inter-connecting capabilities through the C4ISR D enablement strategy.  No platform fights alone, and shaping a honeycomb approach where force structure is shaped appropriate to the local problem but can reach back to provide capabilities beyond a particular Area of Interest (AOI) within the honeycomb is key.

The strategy is founded on having platform presence.  By deploying assets such as USCG assets, for example, the NSC, or USN surface platforms, Aegis, LCS or other surface assets, by deploying sub-service assets and by having bases forward deployed, the U.S. has core assets, which if networked together – through an end the stovepipe strategy, significant gains in capability are possible.

Scalability is the crucial glue to make a honeycomb force possible, and that is why a USN, USMC, USAF common fleet as a crucial glue. And when “Aegis becomes my wingman” or when “the SSGN becomes the ARG fire support” through the F-35 C4ISR-D systems a combat and cultural revolution is both possible and necessary.

And a fleet of F-35s deployed throughout Asia provides an effective foundation for the Asian pivot introduced by the Obama Administration. There is a high probability that the strategic quadrangle of South Korea, Singapore, Australia and Japan will all be populated by F-35s as well Aegis’s.  This allows not only significant commonality among the allies, but provides a solid foundation for U.S. forces to work with allies in the region and reduce the risks to US forward deployed forces.

South Korean defense can be remade by the introduction of F-35As into US forces, followed by acquisition of As and Bs by South Korea itself.  South Korea 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.

Singapore is postured to add F-35Bs to their inventory as well as the Aussies to add As and perhaps Bs down the line.

And the commonality of the fleet allows hubs to be built in the region supporting common operations and shape convergent capabilities. The distributed character of allied forces in the region as well as the connectivity, which the F-35 allows as an interdependent flying combat system, diversifies capabilities against which a core adversary would have to cope with.  Reducing concentration of forces and targets is a significance enhancer of deterrence.

In other words, the F-35 is part of shaping a scalable force, which can participate in executing an economy of force strategy. Basing becomes transformed as allied and U.S. capabilities become blended into a scalable presence and engagement capability.  Presence is rooted in basing; scalability is inherently doable because of C4ISR enablement, deployed decision-making and deployment and operational robustness.

The reach from Japan to South Korea to Singapore to Australia is about how allies are re-shaping their forces and working towards greater reach and capabilities


By building on the F-35 and leveraging its capabilities, the US and its allies can build the next phase of power projection within affordable limits. US forces need to become more agile, flexible, and global in order to work with allies and partners to deal with evolving global realities.

Protecting access points, the global conveyer of goods and services, ensuring an ability to work with global partners in having access to commodities, shaping insertion forces which can pursue terrorist elements wherever necessary, and partnering support with global players all require a re-enforced maritime and air capability.

Retiring older USN, USMC, and USAF systems, which are logistical money hogs and high maintenance, can shape affordability.  Core new systems can be leveraged to shape a pull rather than a push transition strategy.

At the heart of the approach is to move from the platform-centric focus where the cost of a new product is considered the debate point; rather the value of new systems and their ability to be conjoined is the focal point.

No platform fights alone is the mantra; and core recognition of how the new platforms work with one another to shape collaborative con-ops and capabilities is central to a strategic re-design of US forces.