2014-07-09 By Robbin Laird
One does not build military aircraft primarily to fly at airshows.
It is fun to see such aircraft, visit static displays and talk with manufacturers and users alike.
But the reality of military aircraft innovation is seen in the battlespace, and how operators, maintainers and leaders in real world combat situations use it.
Combat is unforgiving; there is always a reactive enemy and the cycle of innovation is ongoing. Yet the reality of reportage from air shows rarely if ever captures this. Travelling to combat theaters can threaten your life, and visiting the folks actually shaping, building, and introducing new aircraft can be demanding. And you have to talk to pilots, maintainers, and manufacturers who are spread out on the globe and it makes it challenging to put together a picture regarding combat innovation.
The KC-130J and the Osprey
This is certainly true for several of the aircraft that one can see at Farnbourgh and at future airshows. Several examples abound but I will discuss five examples of combat innovation in play and the introduction of new military aircraft: the KC-130J, the Osprey, the F-35B, the KC-30A and the A400M. All can be seen at airshows, but the hard work to turn planes into operational realities and reshaping concepts of operations are not readily visible.
The KC-130J and the Osprey have become a venerable pair enabling the Marines to fly at distance and range to insert ground forces. The Marines are the only tiltrotar enabled combat force, and is changing the face of warfare. But the Osprey does not fly with itself, and its refueling is often done by its mate, the KC-130J.
Yet the J has been operating only since 2005 and the Osprey only a couple of years later.
A recent visit to 2nd Marine Air Wing in North Carolina, demonstrated the cluster of innovations surrounding these aircraft.
The KC-130J has broadened the concept of support going from a tanker-lifter to an ISR-strike capability with Harvest Hawk and with the opportunity to have some mother ship capabilities as the F-35B ISR and C2 aircraft along with USMC UAVs come on line.
The Osprey has gone from what one Marine pilot noted several years ago from being a “bar act” to a staple of an assault force.
An illustration of the progress can be seen with regard to VMX-22. On June 27, 2014, the VMX-22 or Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron Twenty-Two had its change of command at New River Marine Corps Air Station.
The squadron began with the introduction of the Osprey into Iraq. It has migrated under Col. Orr to build upon the success and maturity of the Osprey, to work on a variety of innovations, notably upon exercises with the ground forces in shaping new force insertion approaches.
This process will continue with the new CO of VMX-22, Col. Robert L. Rauenhorst.
Indeed, his first major effort will be working with the new navy ship the USS America in integrating aviation assets aboard that ship. His first major task will be to take the squadron and fly to the USS America while it is operating off of South America and heading for its homeport of San Diego.
He won’t be seen at the Air Show, but Captain Hall, the CO of the USS America, is a fundamental part of the Osprey and F-35B aviation enterprise.
In a recent interview conducted with Captain Hall aboard the USS America, he underscored the role of the ship and its role in the aviation enterprise.
The flight deck is about the size of a legacy LHA. But that is where the comparison ends. By removing the well deck, we have a hangar deck with significant capacity to both repair aircraft and to move them to the flight deck to enhance ops tempo.
With the Ospreys, we will be able to get the Marines into an objective area rapidly and at significant distances. And when the F-35B comes the support to the amphibious strike force is significantly enhanced.
And we will be able to operate at much greater range from the objective area. With the concern about littoral defenses, this ship allows us the option to operate off shore to affect events in the littoral. This is a major advantage for a 21st century USN-USMC team in meeting the challenges of 21st century littoral operations.
The largest amphibious ship ever built is also the first ship designed with the Osprey in mind will begin the process of marrying the ship to the airplane. And the other new aviation piece, which will come to the USS America, will be the F-35B.
When the F-35B goes to England this summer and makes appearances at two air shows, the focus will be upon the plane and its first appearance at a major air show.
But in reality, the focus needs to be on the arrival of the first operational squadron of F-35s, which is embedded in the USMC aviation enterprise at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona.
The squadron is being shaped for its inclusion into the Marine Corps air role via its working relationship with MAWTS. According to one MAWTS officer and F-35 pilot, the advantage of MAWTS and VMFA 121 working together is crucial for the evolution of the way ahead.
We have developed the infrastructure and process for the standardization of the F-35B within the USMC. We can do this by working directly with the only operational fleet squadron. We can take that forward to future squadrons as they are stood up. We build out a standardized approach.
And we can introduce the rest of the USMC who participates in the exercises at MAWTS about the capabilities of the F-35 and how those capabilities can change how the MAGTF can operate. We can show battalion Marines on the ground how this aircraft is going to enhance their operational capabilities.
The current planes are operating with Block 2A software and the Block 2B software arrives later this year for the preparation for the IOC in 2015. What this means is that the plane operating today with MAWTS is more limited than what will come later in the year. While Block 2B is largely a software upgrade, there are some planned hardware mods as well.
The F-35 is operating with other Marine Corps air as the blue team against red aggressors in various exercises. This means that already the Marines are working the question of 5th generation aircraft working with 4th generation to shape tactics and training for more effective air operations. This has meant as well that the combat systems on the F-35 have already demonstrated an ability to enhance the impact of F-18s and Harriers on air combat operations.
As one of the MAWTS instructors put it:
We are able to employ the F-35 as a kind of information manger using its combat systems to be able to employ the air ordinance carried by the other airplanes which allows us to conserve our ordinance on the F-35 until we actually need to use it.
This has already led to interesting results when doing things like the defense of Yuma exercise where the F-18s were enabled to do things they can not normally do against incoming USAF aircraft as the Red Force.
A key rupture for the USMC ground element is to experience how the combat systems of the F-35 can change their operational approaches as well.
It is not just about flying artillery in support of the Ground Combat Element (GCE); it is a 360-degree flying combat system enabling the GCE.
The plane is designed for the intertwined battlefield in which ordinance, C2, ISR, and other assets carried by the F-35 provide swiss army tool sets to support the GCE.
Another 21st century plane, which will appear at the airshow, will be the new Airbus tanker, in its UK variant.
In my visit earlier this year to the operational squadron of KC-30As in Australia highlights the innovations, which the squadron is engaged in as the tanker enables the Australian military. Again, those folks are not appearing at Farnborough, but they are the crafters of the new operational realities, which that platform can enable.
In March, I visited No. 33 Squadron, at Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Amberley in the state of Queensland. The Squadron operates the KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT). Two of the five planes were at RAAF Base Amberley during the visit.
Three of the five Aussie tanker aircraft are currently involved in maintenance, upgrade, testing, and residual acquisition activities in Madrid and Australia. The squadron fleet should be at full strength in 2015.
Last year, in combination with Australian C-17s, the KC-30A squadron supported several F/A-18 deployments to Guam as well as Darwin and Tindal in Australia’s Northern Territory. This activity demonstrated the ability of the RAAF to move an air wing and support it at extended range with a tanker, while also providing airlift support.
This year the squadron has supported movement of Aussie F/A-18s from the United States across the Pacific and back to Australia.Both operations underscore capabilities, which are part of shaping a 21st century Air Force.
The RAAF has really the world’s first operational squadron of the MRTT, and as the launch customer is working through the launch point for the foundational capabilities of the tanker. The Royal Air Force, United Arab Emirates Air Force, and Royal Saudi Air Force operate similar tankers, but Australia is in the lead in initial use of the tanker. India, Singapore and France are currently in the process of procuring MRTTs from Airbus Defence and Space as well.
And as they do so, the RAAF is flying the tanker and taking it through its paces and preparing for the next phase of expanding its interoperability as the boom system comes on line later this year.
Shaping interoperability with a clear role as both a national and regional asset is a strategic goal of the RAAF. This will require sorting out common procedures with the United States Air Force and regional and global partners, but this is clearly a core effort in the works for the period ahead. And with Singapore adding 6 Airbus tankers to the Aussie 5, a large fleet of tankers which can support allied operations in the area is in the works, including being able to tank the Ospreys, KC-130Js and F-35Bs of the USMC discussed earlier.
And a new entrant to the operational world is the A400M. The A400M was originally conceived of in a world where lifters were trucks to carry cargo and troops from point A to B. This world has totally been transformed by operations in the past decade, during which the A400M was being developed and readied for its roll out into operations. With the last decade of experience and the revolution in air dropping, the air lifter is an integral part of the kind of expeditionary logistics, which insertion forces clearly need to operate with for 21st century operations.
The first operational A400Ms are to be found at the Orléans – Bricy Air Base in France. France and Turkey are the launch customers for the A400M and my colleague, Murielle Delaporte, recently visited the squadron and interviewed several members of the French Air Force A400M team. What she found was that the airlifter is part of reworking the entire approach to how the French Air Force will do airlifting in supporting operations.
The workflow is changing to take advantage of the rapidly reconfigurable airlifter, and the ability to shape load to mission in a rapid turn around scenario. The ability to carry troops and equipment, which can exit the aircraft from the side and back, respectively, provides an interesting operational capability as well.
According to the warfighters she interviewed, the training provided by Airbus Military on their facilities in Spain provided a high fidelity for standing up and operating the training center in France. And indeed, the training system set up by Airbus Defence and Space is an important part of the learning and upgrade curve, whereby the lessons learned at Orléans can be fed back into the overall training system and distributed to fleet users.
And if you look at a single A400M or Airbus tanker or F-35B you might miss a key reality of the 21st century combat aircraft—the impact of the fleet. This is true for training, sharing of operational experience and managing supply chains. And certainly out of site is the sustainment side of the picture, which is enabled by fleets of aircraft rather than a single copy, viewed at an airshow.
Global support for a global fleet built from the bottom up in today’s world is different from the old days where global support means warehousing parts locally and moving specialists around via global transport to work with local industry.
Both the F-35 and A400M have common serial numbers and UID built in. This will be a crucial tool going forward. The F-35 has as well a single computer system to help manage the flow of parts as well. Hardly exciting when looking at air displays but if you are in combat it is essential to have the parts from a globally deployed system to enable you to prevail in combat.
One of the best statements of the difference between operational reality and air shows, which I have witnessed, was an exchange between Lt. General Robling, then Deputy Commandant of Aviation and now MARFORPAC, and two journalists. When asked the question: “What aircraft will the USMC fly after the Osprey and the F-35B?”
Lt. General Robling’s answer was something like this:
Every few years the F-35B will be more capable and a different aircraft. The F-35B flying in 2030 will be significantly more capable than the initial F-35Bs.
The problem is that will look the same at the airshows; but will be completely different inside.
So you guys are going to have a tough time to describe the differences.
It is no longer about adding new core platforms; it is about enabling our core multi-mission platforms. It is a very different approach.
An earlier version of this piece appeared on Breaking Defense: