The Fifth Generation Experience Updated: “The F-35 is a Situational Awareness Machine”


2012-09-11 By Robbin Laird

When Ed Timperlake and I wrote our piece for Joint Forces Quarterly on the F-35 and the future of power projection, we started with a discussion we had earlier with Lt. Col. Berke during his time at Nellis AFB.

Then Lt. Col. Berke was flying the F-22 Raptor and the interview was entitled appropriately enough: “What is the 5th generation aircraft all about: A view from the cockpit.”

Berke’s background is unique and comprehensive.

Lieutenant Colonel Berke has been an F-18 pilot, an F-16 pilot, a TOPGUN instructor and served as ground Forward Air Controller supporting the US Army for a year. He gained his Viper experience in an F-16 flying aggressor tactics at TOPGUN; so you have a Marine Hornet Driver flying “foreign tactics” in a Navy training squadron in an AF Fighter. He was flying the Raptor and shaping tactics for the plane in its joint force role.

He now is a squadron commander for the F-35 at Eglin AFB.

Lt. Col. David Berke, the Commanding Officer for the Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501, flew the 100th F-35 Lightning II sortie at the installation. This occurred on July 11, 2012.

I interviewed Berke on August 24, 2012, the day the 199th and 200th sorties were flown, underscoring up the uptick in sorties of the aircraft.

Question: You have flown the F-22 for some time and now you are flying the F-35.  How would compare the two 5th generation aircraft?

Berke:  The F-35 is not as mature as the F-22 as a flight system so it’s difficult to draw conclusions in some areas.  The F-22 was my transition out of legacy aircraft and the legacy mindset.  It was the aircraft where I started the 5th generation evolution.

With regard to the F-35, I absolutely love flying the airplane.  It is more fun than I thought it would be to fly.

And there is marked difference between the two aircraft with regard to the cockpit and the pilot interface. 

In contrast to the F-35, the F-22 has a 4th generation cockpit on top of a 5th generation sensor and information system.  It’s a very nice fourth gen cockpit when you’re talking multifunctional displays, push buttons, etc. but it is more like legacy platforms.

The beauty of the F-35 is that it has a very clean cockpit. 

When they talk about heads up and heads down, the F-35 truly is heads up everywhere.

With an F-22, you have displays down between your knees.  You’ve got four multifunctional displays you of work with on a regular basis.

With the F-35, everything is out in front of you; it’s all touch screen.  It’s one huge piece of glass.  There are no buttons, switches, or knobs and it’s truly a glass cockpit; and then with the helmet the display is put all around the pilot.

In other words, the two marked differences between the F-22 and the F-35 are the displays and the helmet, and both of those interfaces in the F-35 are unbelievable.  The set up significantly reduces the workload for the pilot.

Before flying the F-35 I was skeptical about the touch screen.  I am a believer now. 

Whoever designed the F-35 cockpit is a genius.  The bottom line is that is just works.

Question: How would explain the difference between the F-35 and the other planes you have flown as well?

Berke: I’ve been asked to explain my experience a lot of times, and I’ve summarized it in a way that I think resonates with a lot of folks.  If you took a room full of fighter pilots, and asked them to whiteboard the list of capabilities they would like, what would be the result?

The list would include speed, turning performance, stealth, maneuverability, what have you.  But if you could only pick one, if you were limited to picking one characteristic, I would guarantee every fighter pilot in the room would pick is situational awareness.  A pilot armed with situational awareness, even if he didn’t have all the other capabilities that he wanted, is absolutely the most survivable and lethal pilot out there.

And the thing about the F35 that it has in spades, well beyond any other aircraft is situational awareness.

And when you start talking about the other enablers; an unbelievable engine, a truly expeditionary platform, excellent maneuverability, the stealth, the variety of sensors and ordnance we’re going to be able to carry, it only gets better.

And that’s the F35 in a nutshell; it is a situational awareness machine.

Question: You are a Marine, so what does the F-35 bring to the Marine Corps?

Berke: The plane fits what Marines do.  We thrive on flexibility, rapid response time, and the ability to go where the action needs to be.  We need to be able to operate across the spectrum of operations, and that means flexibility with effectiveness.

Currently, we rely on a range of air assets to accomplish our tasks; the F-35 streamlines and simplifies our means.

And when we get the F-35 into the MAGTF we will discover over time the capabilities the aircraft brings to the fight.  And it will reside in a single aircraft and combat team, rather than needing three or more aircraft to provide for the functionality we are looking for.

Question: You were a FAC.  How will the F-35 affect this function?

Berke:  As a Marine FAC supporting the Army in our operating area, I was asked to advise what would be available with regard to air support.  I would have to reach out and back to determine aircraft availability and what platform best suited our needs on any given day. With the F-35, we will bring any and all legacy tactical capability in a single aircraft.

But learning will take time. 

Transformation does not happen in a day or a week or a month.  This is an innovative aircraft, not just by how it flies and not by the information it possesses but how that information will be used in combat.

Innovation takes time, and there will be growth and development in the understanding of how to use the aircraft over time as it is used by the warfighters.

I think the Marine Corps deserves a lot of credit for understanding that this will take time; it is not as simple as determining how you use an F-18.

I also think that although it is a tactical aircraft, it will be part of a strategic transformation. 

The ability of the aircraft working with the other elements of the Marine Corps in the future will allow tactical maneuver to have a strategic consequence.

Everyone’s going to have to understand how this aircraft changes the way they do business.

And it’s not going to be as simple as a pilot just having a different sensor or a different capability that comes online with a software upgrade.

This is an entirely new way of not just flying, but flying as it relates to supporting the ground scheme of maneuver, and that’s what we do in the USMC.

Editor’s Note: The F-22 billet, which Chip Berke went to, was created by Secretary Wynne; I asked Wynne to comment on the interview and the USMC approach.

This is terrific; and the USMC is doing exactly as we wanted.

That is; putting the aircraft n the hands of operators with engineers listening to what they need. 

Now they need to put them into a combat situation such that they must think outside the box to survive. That is what joint exercises try to do.   

Featured Photo: “OD” Bachmann during 200th Sortie run.