The F-35 and Legacy Aircraft: Re-Norming Airpower and the Meteor Example


We have argued for some time that the introduction of fifth generation aircraft into legacy fleets was part of a process we have called the “re-norming” of airpower.

We have even published a book with that title.

When we discussed the time when Lt. Col. “Chip” Berke came to Nellis AFB to train to become an F-22 pilot, he underscored that he had come at a good time, because the F-22 team was increasingly focused upon how the F-22 can enable legacy aircraft to operate more effectively, notably in advance of the much more numerous F-35s entering the fleet.

In the discussion between Secretary Wynne and Berke, the transition at Nellis was discussed as follows:

The discussion began with Wynne explaining his thinking about the necessity for the cross-assignment. 

“It boiled down to the fact that I believed the USAF needed to better understand and explain that 5th generation aircraft are not simply replacement aircraft for the 4th generation.  I believed that bringing in pilots from other services and Air Forces might well jump start USAF thinking as well as spread the word to others.” 

Berke then underscored that he had come to Nellis at a good time, because the USAF was beginning to understand that the F-22 was not simply the next iteration of the Eagle and that they would have to focus more than they had on how the 5th generation would work with legacy aircraft to shape more effective combat capability overall. 

Secretary Wynne had considered early on that there was an inherent advantage to leveraging legacy aircraft as the first shooters in any serious engagement to better use the stealth characteristics of the fifth generation.  This means the relearning of basic pilot instinct to shoot first to protect those following.  Here it is shoot from follow platforms, and save ordnance for the final fight. 

Berke saw this as well. “I got to Nellis at the time when the F-22 community was beginning to really understand the necessity to better integrate the F-22 within the overall air force.  When I was there, the most significant tests we were doing were integration tests.” 

Berke underscored that “a strike force of Raptors working with Hornets, or Eagles or Vipers are going to do better in an overall air combat effort than simply training to operate by themselves.” 

And during a visit to MAWTS-1, the USMC command entrusted with the development and employment of aviation weapons and tactics, we discussed with Major “Boo Boo” Weber the preparation within MAWTS for the incorporation of their first squadron of F-35Bs within the MAGTF and the impact of that effort on legacy aircraft.

Weber explained that a major effort was underway to think through how that initial F-35B deployment would affect not only the MAGTF but how their F-18s would be used differently. 

UK and USMC F-35Bs in four hour training session when multiple sorties were generated as part of the training effort. Credit: 33rd FW, December 4, 2013.
UK and USMC F-35Bs in four hour training session when multiple sorties were generated as part of the training effort. Credit: 33rd FW, December 4, 2013.

Certainly, a key aspect of working the relationship is an ability to use the F-18 as a bomb carrier to support the target set which the F-35 will identify as a forward deployed asset.

And over time, as the F-35 becomes the dominant aircraft, Weber looked to the airplane to enable ever more capable forward deployed distributed operations.

In other words, there is a transition in which the F-35 works with legacy to shape new overall force structure capabilities and then over time as F-35 numbers grow, the transition will accelerate and a more effective distributed force able to operate as a honeycomb or hive would emerge. 

The challenge then is to shape the transition and to find effective ways to incorporate legacy systems where appropriate with fifth generation aircraft.

Not all legacy systems will remain viable in the face of the fifth generation aircraft revolution.  

Notably, those assets which compromise an air fleet as it becomes stealthier are seriously at risk.

Major changes are afoot for large aircraft like AWACS whose role is not at all clear in a fifth generation revolution.

The shift from a linear air operation to a distributed one will take time, but the strategic direction will change forever the make up of an airpower insertion and defense force.

An example of the transition is how the newly configured Raptor packages might work with existing U.S. naval assets.

In the interview with General Hawk Carlisle, the PACAF commander introduced two interesting examples of capabilities becoming available now, which could support enhanced cross-domain synergy, which are so central to 21st century operations. 

The first example is the ability of 5th generation aircraft to provide forward target identification for strike missiles from a surface or subsurface maritime asset. 

He described the ability of advanced aircraft, in this case the F-22, to provide forward targeting through its sensors for submarine based T-LAMS (cruise missiles) as both a more effective use of the current force and a building block for the emergence of the F-35 fleet in the Pacific.

This is a harbinger of things to come with the emergent weapons revolution associated with the laydown of a new generation of combat systems enabled aircraft. 

The second example is that of what he called Rapid Raptor. 

The idea is to take four Raptors and deploy them with a C-17 and to rotate across the Pacific to go to the point of need for implementing missions. 

This provided both a tool for enhanced survival and an enhanced capability to apply the force associated with a fifth-generation aircraft as well. 

His focus was upon leveraging Air Force and joint assets in ways that would make that force more expeditionary and more effective in providing for cross-domain synergy.  

He noted that the combination of a large deck carrier with the Air Force with the Amphibious Ready Group and Marine Expeditionary Unit (ARG-MEU) air assets when conjoined within a distributed strike package provides significantly greater capability than when each is considered on its own. The strike package could well come from another stealth asset, the SSGN as a fire support system, carrying various weapons including TLAMS. 

What bringing Rapid Raptor, the ability of the F-22 to provide target identification for TLAMS and the existing carrier battle group together is an opportunity to shape the future template in current conditions. 

By deploying Rapid Raptor packages to work along side a large deck carrier, reworking the entire integrated strike package would be facilitated, and would be so along lines, which the coming of the F-35 fleet will bring to the Pacific. 

And it can facilitate the kind of training and tactics symmetrical with evolving possibilities for new concepts of operations.

Another example of working the transition can be seen as new missiles become available to an air fleet. 

If those weapons can operate on both fifth generation aircraft and legacy aircraft, then a common stockpile can be developed from which the fleets can operate to the advantage of the entire fleet.

Clearly, weapons on fifth generation aircraft and legacy aircraft will deploy differently, but can be used within an overall strike and defense approach in a synergistic way. 

The Meteor missile and its ability to deploy from an F-35 or multiple legacy aircraft including, Eurofighter, Rafale, or Gripen provides a good example of what can be done with a new missile system able to operate across multiple platforms.

Rolling off the production line in Europe is a new weapon appropriate to the 21st Century weapons enterprise.  The Meteor missile has several core capabilities, which provide a case study of 21st century capabilities.  It is often described as a new or longer-range replacement for AMRAAM but it really is not well described in those terms.

Italian workers involved with the F-35 at Cameri. Credit: Italian MOD.
Italian workers involved with the F-35 at Cameri. Credit: Italian MOD. 

Longer range is crucial for a combat aircraft with a significantly greater radar reach than the current AMRAAM, and the Meteor certainly is considerably more appropriate than the traditional AMRAAM for the F-35.

The new Meteor missile developed by MBDA is a representative of a new generation of air combat missiles for a wide gamut of new air systems. It can be fitted on the F-35, the Eurofighter Typhoon, Rafale, Gripen and other 21st century aircraft.

It is a software upgradeable missile which pairs nicely with the arrival of a software upgradeable aircraft like the F-35.

Software upgradeability is a game changer for 21st century systems not well understood or highlighted by analysts.

In the past, new products would be developed to replace older ones in a progressive but linear dynamic.  But now, one builds a core product with software upgradeability built in, and as operational experience is gained, the code is rewritten to shape new capabilities over time.  Eventually, one runs out of processor power and BUS performance and needs to consider a new product, but with software upgradeability, the time when one needs to do this is moved significantly forward in time.

It also allows more rapid response to evolving threats.  As threats evolve, re-programming the missiles can shape new capabilities, in this case the Meteor missile.  The current production missile is believed to be using well below the maximum processing power and bus capacity of the missile.  Significant upgradeability is built in from the beginning.

Although software upgradeability is not new with regard to weapon systems, the F-35 as software upgradeability is.

Combining the launch of a software upgradeable aircraft with a missile designed from the ground up with upgradeability built in will allow the aircraft and the weapon to evolve together over time to deal with evolving threats and challenges.

And underlying the model and the code is a multinational team.  And this team is the core capability, which can drive weapons development over time.  MBDA has functioned as the prime and has worked with three aircraft manufacturers and radar manufacturers already and is working with additional players as the missile prepares to go onto the F-35.

What has been a challenge – working with 6 air forces – is an opportunity as well.  Each of the partners had different takes on the target set they wished the missile to serve.  This has meant that the range of targets and engagement envelopes were very wide ranging, from low-level cruise missiles and high flyers, to UAVs, to helos, etc.  The end result is a software upgradeable missile with a very wide-ranging initial capability to deal with a diversity of targets.

Another key aspect of the missile is it is designed from the beginning to be employed on and off-board.

It can be fired by one aircraft and delivered to target by that aircraft or the inflight data link can be used via another asset – air or ground based – to guide it to target.

The missile ought to be integrated into the Block 4 of F-35.

When so done, the missile can provide a sweet spot of 4th and 5th generation weapons integration with its core networking capability.

Because of the nature of software integration on the F-35, the Meteor missile, which will be integrated onto the F-35 due to European requirements, means that it is available to all the other global partners of the F-35 as well.

The partner aspect is crucial in leveraging global investments of America and its partners in a resource-constrained age.

If one would turn to the Italian example of how the Meteor can facilitate a more effective air fleet of newly introduced F-35s along side of legacy Eurofighters, the approach boils down to:

How to enhance the joint use by the F-35 and the Eurofighter of a common 21st century missile?

A clear advantage would be drawn from having a common weapons stockpile. Life-cycle costs would be reduced by having one multi-purpose Meteor stockpile rather than having two separate, less flexible weapons stockpiles, AMRAAM and Meteor, but also in terms of having common training of pilots and ground crew, and would minimize the logistics footprint including test and ground equipment.

Another advantage would accrue from having a missile widely used in Europe and available to coalition partners, including the United States, and to put the support for that common capability at Cameri.

Cameri can become a regional support center for the F-35 fleet operating in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.  Having a common support capability for a common missile like Meteor which can also be used by the Eurofighter among others, provides for a significant element in the strike and defense mix.

Meteor could well become the first of several European weapons integrated onto the F-35 and could allow Cameri to start the process of including weapon aspects of sustainment within its potential evolution as a Regional Support Center for the F-35 fleet.

In other words, Meteor is part of the re-norming of airpower, and at the cutting edge of reshaping the operational of an airfleet in transition.

As General Hostage, the ACC Commander, discussed the evolution of the interaction between 5th generation aircraft and older aircraft in shaping synergy in 21st century air operations:

The 5th generation aircraft will enable the air combat cloud and allow me to use my legacy assets differently.

Many of my 4th generation fighters can be used to extend the network of linked systems, providing reinforcing fires, and I can focus on the 5th generation assets as the core nodes shaping distributed joint capabilities.

In a similar manner, Lt. General Preziosa, the Chief of the Italian Air Force, highlighted the importance of the transition.

The second issue is the impact of the F-35 on the legacy fleet. 

Although the F-35 provides for a new approach, clearly the Italian Air Force and every other F-35 partner will look to use their legacy aircraft for a considerable period ahead, and seek to use them more effectively as the F-35 fleet becomes a reality. 

This is an important issue.  One way to think about the way ahead is to continue to use 4th generation aircraft in surging mass to more classic airpower situations. 

One would use the F-35 as the key asset up against the distributed operational settings or for operations in denied air space. 

Another way to look at it will be to find ways to gain more synergy between the F-35 and the legacy fleet. 

How can we better utilize our older assets during the process where the F-35 fleet becomes a reality? 

Shaping combinations of 4th generation with the F-35s will be a mix and match opportunity in tailoring airpower to the missions ahead. 

This is a challenge; but it is a key task within which the F-35s will make the legacy aircraft more effective; and the 4th generation aircraft will add support and strike capabilities to an F-35 enabled air power force.

The advent of Meteor for the Italian Air Force provides a nice complement with this approach.

Editor’s Note: We have placed our Renorming Book on the website to be read in flip book format.

First published in 2010, this book examines a number of key aspects of the impact of fifth generation aircraft on the evolution of airpower.

It includes, a number of key interviews with airpower leaders like General Corley, Secretary Wynne, Lt. General (retired) Trautman, former Deputy Commandant of USMC Aviation, and Lt. General (Retired) Deptula and now Dean of the Mitchell Airpower Institute.

The video below shows the Meteor being successfully launched from a Eurofighter earlier this year (credit: BAE Systems):