The F-35 and Pacific Strategy: Shaping a Core Lynchpin


2012-11-08 By Robbin Laird

Many analysts and politicians have discussed the F-35 as if it was a simple replacement aircraft. And in such conversations, the notion of stealth is seen as a high-end capability needed only sparingly and in specialized circumstances.

If this were true, the Marines would not be prioritizing the F-35Bs as a core asset. 

For they are not configured to fight for only a few specialized days.  Their F-35s are not conceived of in any way as if they were high end F-117s designed for air defense suppression and little else.

The F-35B for the Marines is seen as a C5ISR aircraft which can able the MAGTF, the joint force and coalition forces.  It is seen as a key enabler for the sea base, for the amphibious insertion force and for land operations.

It is seen as the replacement for multiple aircraft, and giving the Corps for the first time organic Tron warfare capabilities.

It is viewed as a game changer for how the USMC-USN team will operate and is viewed as the joint force commanders as crucial glue for re-shaping operations.

The Challenge of the Pacific and Power Projection Seen from the United States. Credit Image: Bigstock

In an interview with the 7th USAF commander, the key role, which the Bs will play upon entry into South Korean defense, was clearly identified.

Question: How will the coming of F-35s to South Korea affect the template?

LT. GENERAL JOUAS: U.S. overseas basing decisions are not yet determined; however, any deployment of F-35s to the Korean peninsula will clearly modify the template, including the Marine Corps F-35B.

The Seventh Air Force relationship with the Marine Corps is the best I’ve ever seen.  Their aircraft will be dedicated to the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) at some point, but before then, they will be used as part of our air campaign to the greatest effect that we can deliver.

The F-35A, B, and C will give us greater flexibility, and greater options in terms of where and how we can operate.

We will integrate the F-35 with F-16s, F-15Ks, F-15Es, F-22s, and other airplanes in a way that will enhance and increase everybody’s capability, much in the same way that we currently see the F-22 and the F-15 integrating and increasing their capabilities.  Our targeting, and the effects that we will seek, will be adjusted by the fact that we have F-35s.

Even the discussion of the shift from 4th to 5th generation has often missed the point of what the impact of deploying a significant number of F-35s within a region as central as the Pacific could have on the U.S. and its allies.

And the F-35 can play the role of a linchpin in a 21st century Pacific strategy which is allied-centered and enabled.  Indeed, the F-35 as a linchpin to interactive allied and American capabilities intersect nicely with the overall strategy whereby the United States is the key lynchpin power in the allied coalitions of the Pacific.

The concepts of operations underlying a new approach to providing for lynchpin capabilities are built around the F-35.

As I argued earlier in my piece on “Shaping an Attack and Defense Enterprise for the Pacific:”

If the projection of power is seen to be about PUSHING platforms and capabilities out from CONUS, Alaska and Hawaii, the challenges are significant to deal with the growth of Chinese power and the needs for interoperability and support, empowering both the allies and the United States operating in the region.

But if a different approach is shaped, one, which rests increasingly on a PLUG-IN strategy, the challenge is manageable.   U.S. allies are shaping new defense and security capabilities for the 21st century, and certainly putting resources into the re-crafting of their capabilities going forward.  How can these efforts be combined more effectively going forward so that both the allies and the U.S. end up collectively with significantly expanded but cost effective capabilities?

The evolution of 21st century weapon systems and capabilities is breaking down the barriers between offensive and defensive systems.  Is missile defense about defense or is it about providing capabilities for global reach, for offense or defense?  And the new 5th generation aircraft have been largely not understood because they are inherently multi-mission systems, which can be used for forward defense or forward offensive operations.

The US Needs to Operate in Two Strategic Operational Zones: A Triangle In Support of Japan; and a Quadrangle to Support South Korea and Core Asian Allies. 

Indeed, an inherent characteristic of many new systems is that they are really about presence and putting a grid over an operational area, and can be used to support strike or defense within an integrated approach.  In the 20th Century, surge was built upon the notion of signaling.  One would put in a particular combat capability, Carrier Battle Group, Amphibious Ready Group, Air Expeditionary Wing, to put down your marker and to warn a potential adversary that you were there and ready to be taken seriously.  If one needed to, additional forces would be sent in to escalate, and build up force.

With the new multi-mission systems – 5th generation aircraft and Aegis for example – the key is presence and integration able to support strike or defense in a single operational presence capability.  Now the adversary can not be certain that you are simply putting down a marker that has its means fundamentally based on your ability to bring in dominant forces.

This is what Secretary Wynne calls the attack and defense enterprise.

The strategic thrust of integrating modern systems is to create a grid that can operate in an area with into a seamless whole able to strike or defend simultaneously.

Although built around presence, scalable forces with significant reach back enable the lynchpin role. 

The allies are always forward deployed and when joined with an enduring presence mission for the US projection forces, a powerful foundation for scalability is provided.  And with the United States providing strategic depth reachback to an integrated and networked force is inherently possible.

Presence, scalability and reach back are solid foundations for the kind of deterrence necessary in the evolving strategic environment in the Pacific.

The F-35 as an Allied and American fleet brings several key and core capabilities to shaping a new attack defense enterprise which allows the U.S. to play a key lynchpin role and at the same time puts allies in the lead to defend themselves and their interests.

Networked Fleet

The first thing the F-35 brings to the Pacific is a networked fleet of C5ISRD aircraft.  A deployed fleet of allied and US aircraft will intersect to create what the USN called in World War II the big blue blanket of ships and aircraft, but now will be delivered by a networked fleet of F-35s.

These aircraft will operate with significant reach via their communications systems, which are built around MADL and their extended 360-degree situational awareness.

In effect this fleet will create a set of strike and defense aircraft able to see hundreds of miles ahead of themselves and able to build a Pacific network for operations.

This capability is inherent in the aircraft with its revolutionary cockpit and what Ed Timperlake has called the Z-axis growth and development capability built into the software systems enabling the aircraft.

Significant Interoperability

The second thing the F-35 brings to the Pacific is significant interoperability among the US and allied fleets.  This is built out from the common cockpit to embrace shared approaches to sharing data and sharing concepts of operations.

A country like Singapore, which is a pioneer in building an integrated and networked force, will undoubtedly find various innovative ways to leverage the F-35 in this role.  And their innovations can be shared among the global partners of the F-35 program.

F-35 global fleet plays a strategic role in the Pacific. Credit Slide: SLD

F-35 Fleet

As Ed Timperlake, a former USMC Marine Corps aviator and squadron leader, has underscored:

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 (T/M/S) “Z-Axis” putting “C4ISR-D”  (D is for Decision) 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.

Multiple and Diversified Basing

The fleet of F-35s can be based across a wide range of operational venues.  F-35As bought by allies and the US alike will be deployed across a wide range of Pacific Air Force bases.  F-35Cs will operate off of large deck carriers.

And the most innovative of the F-35s, from a basing standpoint, the F-35B, will provide significant deployment flexibility.  And this flexibility could well provide an inherent deterrent capability because of the significant uncertainty it provides for an adversary seeking to destroy fixed airfields or strike a significant base like Guam.

As Ed Timperlake has underscored:

The sortie rate of the aircraft is more than just rearm and “gas and go”: it is continuity of operations with each aircraft linking in and out as they turn and burn—without losing situational awareness. This can all be done in locations that can come as a complete tactical surprise –the F-35B sortie rate action reaction cycle has an add dimension of unique and unexpected basing thus getting inside an opponent’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act) loop.

The sortie rate of the aircraft is more than just rearm and “gas and go”: it is continuity of operations with each aircraft linking in and out as they turn and burn—without losing situational awareness.

Enemy air is predictable by needing a runway and consequently all the problems of precision weapons crating their runways come into play for their battle plan—the F-35B does not have that vulnerability.

Put another way, seabasing now becomes a core element of the overall strategy of diversified and distributed force.  The seabase can at once provide for presence as well as lilly pads within an overall distributed force able to be scaled and become dominant interacting with allied capabilities.

As I wrote earlier about drawing upon the lessons of Bold Alligator 2012 and applying them to the new Middle East:

The “new” Middle East is rapidly creating the need for such a capability, and such a transformation of US and allied forces.  And remember the core role, which allies played in BA-2012.

With the Arab Spring, the security and defense framework, which the West has underwritten over the past thirty years, is shattered.  The Arab Spring states are in upheaval, the Iranians are preparing to enter the stage as a nuclear power, the

Conservative Arab states have to prepare to defend themselves against Iran, and the interaction between Arab Spring forces and the stability of the key conservative Arab states is significant.  Who will the West be aiding and abetting if the Arab Spring continues to pull the rug out from under the de facto Conservative Arab, Israeli and Western alliance?

Will Western states be able and willing to deploy land based forces, whether ground or air, on Arab soil?  And given uncertainties even in key Arab allied states, how might the West best defend its interests, and to ensure energy security in the region?

There are several elements presaged in BA-12, which are relevant to the reshaping of Western capabilities to protect Western interests.

First, sea-basing and engagement forces associated with sea basing are clearly well placed to provide for security of choke points and transit in the Mediterranean and the Gulf.

Second, in the exercise, Harriers based on the USS Kersarge worked closely with land-based air to provide for a significant air combat capability to shape the battlespace.  This model can be followed with Arab Air Forces, the Israeli Air Force or Western Air Forces deployed temporarily on Arab soil.  The point is that the organizer of the spear is on the sea-base, and this capability can be conjoined with the various air combat centers extant or being developed in the region.

Third, the F-35B is a game changer.  The combat systems aboard the BACH1-11 during the exercise demonstrated the potential impact of being able to have a wide-angle lens on the battlespace transitioning into dynamic battle management using tactical aircraft.

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.

A Globally Sustained Fleet

The entire approach of the F-35 enables the sustainment of the fleet in radically different ways from the past.  And it is coming at a time when economic pressures create such a need; but if new approaches are not taken money will be invested in maintaining less effective forces.

The F-35 global sustainment approach allows for a more effective and dynamic force at less cost than operating a legacy fleet.

At the heart of the new approach is an inherent capability to leverage logistics hubs throughout the Pacific to create a seamless ability to sustain both allied and American planes.

Presence from this perspective has a whole different meaning.  Hub sustainment means that the US can surge aircraft to the region and be supported during surge operations without having to carry its sustainment capability forward with the surged aircraft, which is the requirement currently.

The opportunity and ability to build hubs and training ranges in the Pacific with hubs and ranges in Canada and Australia and hubs in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Alaska, Hawaii and Guam provides an opportunity to re-shape how sustainment can be done in around the world.

This will bring with it a significant boost to sortie rates and hence operational capabilities.

The Pacific F-35 Fleet can be sustained through a network of hubs and training ranges. Credit Graphic: Second Line of Defense 

As Lou Kratz, former Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, has argued:

The F-35 enables all the Services to dramatically reduce the equipment that is necessary to maintain the aircraft, thereby freeing up both air and sea lift capability to bring in combat elements which then allows you to close the theater faster and enable more rapid responses to emerging threats.

Additionally, because our allies are all over the world, not only do they have the support structure, they have the aircraft.

Our allies become a key part of that coalition force which is already in theatre.  So you reduce both the time, and the cost associated with the total force capability buildup.

The inversion of the Tactical with the Strategic

The public discussion of the F-35 is built on the assumption that it is a tactical aircraft.  This, in turn, is built upon focusing on the individual characteristics of a single aircraft and thinking in traditional terms.

This totally ignores the impact of a fleet of networked aircraft operating as a honeycombing and blanketing the Pacific.  The fleet working together can shape a number of strategic capabilities that will simply be missing if the fleet did not exist.

An example will be the impact of the deployed fleet on C5ISR which provides for redundant space capabilities.

As Ed Timperlake and I argued in a recent Space News op ed:

The key linchpin to do this (i.e to provide for presence, economy of force and scalability) is the C5ISR enterprise in the Pacific. With robust and redundant ISR, the enterprise enables a distributed force presence to be honeycombed.

That is, the network is not about hierarchy and the ability of an adversary to whack the head of the hierarchy; it is about a honeycomb of deployed and distributed capability that no adversary can cripple with a single or easy blow.

A key element for shaping a robust and redundant ISR system in the Pacific is the F-35, a tactical aircraft with strategic impact. The new aircraft is a flying combat system that has C5ISR built into the cockpit.

As a fleet, the F-35s provide a critical layer in shaping a robust and redundant ISR system, which is both synergistic with space systems and complementary to those systems.

A deployed fleet of F-35s — allied and U.S. — provides a powerful deterrent to any Chinese thought of a first strike on U.S. military space systems. It makes such a strike significantly less effective and useful to Chinese military planners.

From the outset, the deployed fleet and space systems forge a powerful deterrent capability.

And the capabilities of the F-35B to operate in a variety of operational areas also have its strategic impact.  It is likely that the USMC-USN team is not going to be the only operator of the F-35B in the Pacific and the interaction among the allies and Americans operating this aircraft will shape innovations as well in operations and shape the thinking of adversaries in the region.

As Ed Timperlake has highlighted about the F-35B:

The strategic deterrence, with tactical flexibility, of the F-35B is in the recovery part of an air campaign when they return from a combat mission, especially if the enemy successfully attacks airfields.

Or is successful in hitting the carrier deck-they do not have to sink the Carrier to remove it from the fight just disable the deck. War is always a confused messy action reaction cycle, but the side with more options and the ability to remain combat enabled and dynamically flexible will have a significant advantage.

With ordinance expended, or not, the F-35B does not need a long runway to recover and this makes it a much more survivable platform — especially at sea where their might be no other place to go.

A call by the air battle commander-all runways are destroyed so find a long straight road and “good luck!” is a radio call no one should ever have to make.

But something revolutionary now exists.

In landing in the vertical mode the Marine test pilot in an F-35B, coming aboard the USS Wasp during sea trials put the nose gear in a one square box. So the unique vertical landing/recovery feature of landing anywhere will save the aircraft to fight another day.

It is much easier to get a fuel truck to an F-35B than build another A or C model, or land one of the numerous “decks” on other ships, even a T-AKE ship then ditch an F-35C at sea.

This unique capability can be a war winning issue for countries like Israel, Taiwan and the U.S. Navy at sea.

Enabling the Wolfpack

This generation’s Billy Mitchell, Secretary Mike Wynne, has focused attention on the empowerment by 5th generation aircraft of a new wolfpack concept.  In the wolfpack, the 5th generation aircraft are the key enablers as forward deployed sensors for a wide-ranging sensor and shooter enterprise.

The 5th generation aircraft can use their weapons sparingly, as they inform and enable, weapons operating off of other platforms to be deployed and targeted more effectively against critical targets.

As Wynne has argued:

The fifth generation platforms; as scouts would be admonished to not shoot lest they give away their position; but rather to expend all the weaponry from the fourth generation platforms; or from any available shooter that could reasonably engage the designated target.  If they are required to engage owing to the fact they have been detected; then shoot and scoot is the motto. This concept would seek to preserve the quantity of fifth generation assets well into the second and third day of warfare.

Realizing that you go to war with the weaponry you have, not the weaponry you want, our Air Forces, whether Naval Aviators or Marine Aviators or Air Force Aviators need to think about force multiplication and affordability.  

Apparently, our leaders are relating in as loudly as they can that our Nation will no longer ‘darken the skies’ with the quantity of Air Assets made available to our forces.

As a nation we are reaching out to coalition partners and other friendly nations to adapt our capabilities so there is a symbolic and real reserve force worldwide to thwart any determined competitor.  The United States capability must be interoperable with these forces and within our own forces to leverage what we can using situation awareness, the ability to share this situation awareness; and overwhelm competitors needs training and early employment.

Concepts for exploiting the best of fourth generation assets and available fifth generation assets; in combination with what we have learned in the first decade of Remotely Piloted Vehicles will be crucial to deterrence in the face of increasing attention to economics.

The ‘Wolfpack’ can be more than casual thought; properly employed by well trained pilots, it can change the outcome in surprising ways.

Crafting the ‘Wolfpack’ can provide a strategic advantage and a best value-leveraging proposition. 

The Wolfpack will be a key element of an effective Pacific strategy which leverages the entire gamut of allied and American resources below and on the sea, deployed at air bases or operating off of the various venues provided by F-35B performance.


The F-35 as it is rolled out as a global fleet can enable a new Pacific strategy.

This strategy would be built upon shaping a whole new approach to working with allies, whereby the US would not be surging force to help the damsel in distress, but would be plugging in to leverage robust capabilities of core allies.

These allies would have independent capabilities but with inherent capacity to work with American forces to shape a scalable and powerful reach back force.

I often argued that the F-35 is less about a plane than crucial capabilities for power projection and coalition interoperability. No greater demonstration of this can be seen in the Pacific whereby the capacity to conjoin capabilities across the vast expanse of the Pacific is crucial to the entire set of players in the Pacific.

A scalable structure allows for an economy of force. Presence and engagement in various local cells of the honeycomb may well be able to deal with whatever the problem in that vector might be.

And remembering that in the era of Black Swans, one is not certain where the next “crisis” or “engagement” might be. But by being part of a honeycomb, the deployed force to whatever cell of the honeycomb, the force can be part of a greater whole, whether allied or U.S.

This means simply put, that the goal is NOT to deploy more than one needs to appropriate to the task. Vulnerability is reduced, risk management is enhanced and the logistics and sustainment cost of an operation significantly reduced.

One does not have to deploy a CBG or multiple air wings, when an ARG is enough.

By leveraging the new platforms which are C5ISR enabled and linked by the F-35 across the USN, USMC, USAF and allied FLEETS are new Pacific strategy can be built.

And this strategy meets the needs of this century, and the centrality of allied capabilities, not the last decade where the U.S. dealt largely with “asymmetric” adversaries with limited power projection tools.