The Way Ahead with the F-35B: A Discussion with the Deputy Commandant for Aviation


2013-04-11 In a discussion in late March 2013, Lieutenant General Robert E. Schmidle Jr., the Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Aviation (DCA), discussed the F-35B and the evolving Marine Corps approach to the aircraft.

The DCA highlighted a number of key changes associated with the introduction of the F-35B into the USMC which will be part of the evolution of its concepts of operations and capabilities.

SLD: We have talked to many F-35 pilots, including one experienced F-22 pilot who is a Marine Corps F-35 squadron commander.  When you spend time with the practitioners, you can see what this plane brings to force structure integration and the joint fight.

Lt. General Schmidle, Deputy Commandant of Aviation. Credit Photo: CSIS 

How do you get people to better understand the innovation associated with the plane, and the CONOPS innovations which the USMC is now shaping, from the Osprey to the F-35B?

Lt. General Schmidle:  It starts by understanding that this is not simply a tactical aircraft replacement. 

Recently, I discussed the transition with General Hostage, the ACC commander.  He mentioned that until he flew the F-22 he thought of the aircraft as an F-15 on steroids.  After flying the aircraft, he appreciated how different a fifth generation aircraft really was in terms of operations and capabilities.

The F-35 has capabilities the Raptor does not, notably in terms of its integration capabilities.  We are operating the aircraft in a limited capacity currently, but that will expand as we roll it out.

SLD: In other words, you are highlighting a mini-fleet in operation?

Lt. General Schmidle:  That is right.  We need to get people away from talking about this as a replacement for an F/A-18, for an AV-8; to get a better understanding at the senior officer level about exactly what the airplane can do.  We are going to put together a general officer / flag officer familiarization event at Fort Worth, of two day duration.

The role of the simulator in training of pilots provides a very realistic sense of what the plane can deliver with the software we will have in our initial deployed airplanes.

I have asked the F-35 team to link several simulators together to begin to understand what an integrated fleet can bring to the combat team.

We are also in the throes of setting up a ten-day immersion event for the field grade officers associated with the F-35 program who will go through the immersion event and fly the plane via the simulators and begin to understand the realities and impacts of sensor fusion on combat operations.  The situational awareness which the plane and fleet can provide will be game-changing, and unless you are in the cockpit and operating in a fleet you will not understand that.

We’re going to immerse them in the systems of the airplane for a half a day, and then spend the rest of the time in the simulators doing tactical employment of the airplane so they can actually see what it means.  What does it mean when we tell you it can generate this kind of information or it can fuse this kind of information?

Again we have seen some of this with the Raptor.  When Raptors take off that is the last time they will see one another until they land.  The Raptor uses airspace multiple times greater than that of an F-15. They train over hundreds of miles and that is mind-boggling.

Putting people into the simulators can get them acclimated to the changes on the way.  You put a Harrier pilot in the simulator, he presses the STOVL button, and the airplane lands easily.

SLD: The F-35B is taking his job away!

Lt. General Schmidle:  Exactly. What we’ve now done is we’ve taken that ten dollars’ worth of focus that every pilot has, and instead of spending eight dollars of it on flying the airplane, I’m only spending two dollars flying the airplane and I’ve got the rest of that time to focus on the systems and burying myself into that system. 

This then allows us to focus on the leveraging of the information, which the plane, as a fleet, will provide.

The Marine Corps is going to be building and developing an architecture that’s going to allow us to share and off-board that information from outside of the F-35 world.  We know how to share it amongst the F-35 pilots and then amongst other people that have certain link capabilities.

But where we are going is to shape information sharing across the MAGTF, not just the command and control, but the intel community and everybody else that has an interest in what that information is and what it could do. 

SLD: The plane will enable a significant change in how information is shared and decisions made.  The Raptor is a different animal completely, and was never designed as an information-sharing engine; the F-35 is.

That is why having the Marines as key lead element in deploying the F-35 is important to getting the broader joint community to understand its impact, don’t you think?

Lt. General Schmidle: The ability to generate the information is one thing, but we are interested in enhanced decision making in combat situations. What I really want to do is inform that decision making process.  Because the decision maker – and it’s not one guy or one gal, there’s many of them in a command post – they’re the people that I want to get this information to.

And a key element is get people to understand that the pilot is not the diffuser of the information, but rather the machines in his aircraft.

The notion that I have to do anything in that cockpit to pass that information to him…is so 1990s. 

There ought to be an automatic algorithm in there that identifies that thing and spits it out to everybody that’s on the net.

SLD: In other words, the goal is to push the information to appropriate level of decision-making?

Lt. General Schmidle: Exactly.  Because if they’re relying on me to look at my display, see the SAM site down there, realize it’s not a threat to me, but now you’re going to pass that information, that’s not, in my mind, an efficient architecture appropriate to an F-35 fleet.

It needs to be automatic because the old way was pilots talking to each other and passing the information.

That’s old school; we don’t want to do that.

You want that information to go to the folks who need it, and his airplane will know whether or not that SAM site is a threat to another asset because it’s got the algorithms built into it to begin with to identify the threat and pass the information around in the battlespace.

SLD: And the reduction of (types of) USMC aircraft from three to one will also allow you to focus on building a common architecture for information sharing from the aircraft to the MAGTF?

Lt. General Schmidle: The Marine Corps being the most frugal of all services, we like to find the Swiss Army knife in the world that’s out there that we can do everything with.  We’ve talked about the fact that there are three type / model / series airplanes that we’re going to neck down to one.

We have the capability inside this one platform to do what we previously did with three different jets: Harrier, EA-6 and F/A-18.  In my mind, that is a good place to start, but it is still a limiting vision in terms of timeline.

What are you going to do with this airplane after the third day of the war?

Major Richard Rusnok, USMC VMX-22, does first production aircraft vertical landing in an F-35B at the Yuma MCAS for VMFAT-121 on Thursday, March 21, 2013.  Credit Photo: : Lockheed Martin photographer Molly Hauxwell 

You are going to do a lot with the airplane because what it will allow you to do now is the airplane itself can transform itself, it is capable of being both a deliverer of kinetic effects and a deliverer of electronic effects, as well as a sensor that pulls all those things in, fuses them, and then feeds them to the rest of the MAGTF.

You have a platform that is capable of not only doing ISR, not only doing kinetic ordinance delivery, but of fusing that delivery and then disseminating it.  The dissemination architecture is something that is still problematic today but the plane enables the crafting of such an architecture, and because of the three variants and the global partners for the plane, investment will be shared and the results global.

This gives us potentially a more streamlined architecture from which to build the information requirements.

SLD: Another aspect of the plane, which is often ignored, is that it is a software upgradeable aircraft, which allows it to evolve with the threat environment.  How do you view the impact of having a software upgradeable aircraft as a baseline capability from which to work from towards the future?

Lt. General Schmidle: If you go back into the ’50s when we were designing airplanes, like the A-4 and the F-4 and the F-111, if you wanted to change something in the weapon system of an F-4, you took a black box out that was this long, this wide and weighed thirty pounds.  And you found a different black box and you stuffed it in there, and it was about this big.

When we evolved into the F/A-18, we had boxes that were much smaller, and they were capable of some reprogramming because we would put new tapes, et cetera, et cetera into them.

But now we’re evolving to what you just described, which is an airplane that is software reprogrammable.

It’s a big server, if you will, in many ways.

And it allows us to continue to reprogram it in ways that will hopefully keep us either ahead of the threat or that will allow us to get the higher levels of integration and fusion.  And when – and that won’t be soon – we begin to hit up against the extent of the computing power, or the analytics in the airplane, that we’ve got the links available that we can off-board some of those analytics to other places that they might be able to more efficiently operate.

If you’re in the net and the net is going to look more and more, in my mind, like a cloud in the future, that kind of architecture, then it will look like a conventional database where queries have to come from individual parts of that database, whereas a cloud can query across the database.

And that’s something that we are just discovering now in the IT world: the power of cloud.

The architecture of this airplane will allow it to evolve into that kind of architecture as it matures.

SLD: The impact of the F-35 as a fleet also means that, from the combatant commander’s point of view, the power of the combat cloud from various US services planes plus allies is the reality he will consider, not Harriers versus F/A-18s versus F-16s.  What is your sense of this possibility?

Lt. General Schmidle:  I think that we’re going to find ourselves in a situation where we, the Marine Corps, are going to be able to offer much more to the joint force in terms of capability.  And as General Hostage put it to me, Marine Corps assets will be considered an integrated part of the joint force, in a way he has not thought of it before. The Air Force commander will look at USMC or USN F-35s as part of his F-35 fleet from the perspective of the joint fight.

SLD:  Another key aspect of the deployment of the aircraft with your other transformation aircraft – the Osprey – is that you can generate significant CONOPS innovations.  What are some of the early thinking about such innovations?

Lt. General Schmidle:  We are looking at a sixteen-ship F-35B formation flying with a four-ship Osprey formation. 

The Ospreys could fly with the Bs to provide fuel and munitions for rearming wherever the F-35Bs can land.  As you know, the F-35B can land in a wide variety of areas and as a result this gives us a very mobile strike force to operate throughout the battlespace.  This kind of flexibility will be crucial in the years ahead.