2015-02-25 By Robbin Laird
The F-35 has entered aviation history at a juncture where information dominance is clearly recognized as the pivotal discriminator in 21st century air enabled defense operations.
For the F-35, the cockpit design coupled with the breakthrough pilot helmet synergistically operating with the cockpit is a foundational element for leveraging the sensor generated information generated by the airplane and its ability to operate as an integrated information dominance air system.
As Lt. Col. “Chip” Berke put it in a presentation last year in Australia at the Williams Conference on the future of air combat:
Lt-Colonel Berke said the old mantra of “speed is life, more is better’’ had been replaced by “information is life, more is better’’.
“Information is far more valuable than speed,’’ he said.
“The F-35 has no peer in terms of information dominance.”
One of the key designers of the F-35 cockpit, and one who made seminal contributions to the improvement of the F-16 cockpit as well, is Dr. Mike Skaff, the chief engineer of pilot/vehicle interface for the F-35 program, and a former USAF F-16 pilot.
The SLD team has spoken with Skaff several times in the past about the role of the F-35 cockpit and the PVI in the shaping of its capabilities for 21st century combat operations.
An important overview on the design approach to the cockpit and the PVI was provided by Skaff in a piece we published in late 2013.
As Skaff introduced his article, he underscored a critical transition.
When Col John Boyd documented the concept of the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) loop as it pertains to tactical aviation and the energy maneuverability egg it was in an era when fighter physical performance was the dominant factor.
Although there were simple fire control radars and missiles, his analysis pertained primarily to the visual encounter and energy maneuverability.
His bottom line: the pilot who runs through his OODA loop fastest stands a far greater chance of victory than his slower opponent who is constantly reacting to an ever changing situation.
This assertion stands today, but fighter performance is no longer the primary factor.
It is information, and the dominance thereof, that determines victory in the information age of tactical aviation.
I had not visited the Lockheed Final Assembly Line recently, my last visit being in the Fall of 2012.
Much has changed since then, and I had a chance to sit down and discuss with Skaff his perspective on the way ahead.
And what is new as well, is the growing number of pilots who have experienced the cockpit and the information management capabilities of the aircraft.
We have interviewed several of these pilots, but two comments clearly stand out as key lead ins to a discussion with Skaff.
The first is the perspective of Lt. Col. Summa, the newly appointed head of the Beaufort training squadron, who has been the Ex O of VFMA-121. During our visit to the squadron last summer, he described how he was using the screens to manage his operations.
Question: The F-35 is a multi-mission aircraft and as such how do you approach doing air-to-air and air-to-ground missions?
Major Summa: You can flip between the two without ever forgetting where you were on the last one.
And let me explain that a little bit better. In the F-18, when we were going to air-to-ground mode specifically on the strike, and we are using the radar, and if we want to the targeting pod, we would get to a certain point in time in the mission, where we have to use some sort of a planning tool.
The pilot would have to sort out when he would be able to go all heads down to try to find the target and employ on the target.
And I need to have a certain amount of distance between me and a threat so that when I come heads back up and start looking for possibly an air breathing threat or a surface-to-air missile, would need to suspend the task of employing that piece of ordinance or that weapon for the CAS mission.
This airplane’s different because with the data being fused, I’m not using multiple different displays with each.
The main difference that I see between federated and fused systems is in the F-18, not only was it all in different displays, but each sensor had its own uncertainty volumes and algorithms associated with it.
It was up to me as an aviator knowing the capabilities and limitations in my system to decipher and draw the line between the mission sets.
In the F-35, the fusion engine does a lot of that in the background, while simultaneously, I can be executing an air-to-air mission or an air-to-ground mission, and have an air-to-air track file up, or multiple air-to-air track files, and determine how to flip missions.
Because the fidelity of the data is there right now, which allows me to determine if I need to go back into an air-to-air mindset because I have to deal with this right now as opposed to continuing the CAS mission.
And I have a much broader set of integrated tool sets to draw upon.
And more recently, the Commanding General of the USAF Warfare Center at Nellis AFB underscored what he was learning about the use of the screens in the cockpit, or the PVI capabilities.
According to Major General Silveria:
The aircraft will demand a culture change, and understanding the adaptability of the aircraft is at the center of the culture change.
The aircraft is adaptable in many ways.
One way is simply the cockpit – you have very few switches and you have a blank screen that you can configure to the mission, which you are engaged in.
You will configure differently for air-to-air mission than close air support missions, for example, in terms of what you want to see on the glass in the cockpit.
When you first start to fly it you have a 20 by 8 touch screen.
You don’t have an air-to-air display, a radar, a targeting FLIR display, an instrument reading, an engine instruments, a radio frequency, an ILS display.
You don’t have any of that unless you want to see it.
And so you start with a blank page.
One of the things that’s interesting in training and it still goes on, is that the instructor who you first fly with will say, okay, here’s what you do.
You get four displays, I want you to take the right side make this one all one big display and then I want you to take this one and I want you to put the air-to-ground radar here and I want you to put the targeting fleer here and I want you to put the air-to-air radar over here.
And down on the bottom of this one put the weapon one and the other, you know, the air-to-service weapon and then I want you to put the air-to-air weapon here. And okay, go.
So there are you are flying because that’s what your instructor told you to do.
And then you start to realize that you can configure to your preferences.
I’ll do a full screen here and then when I’m in a air-to-ground role I’m going to expand my air-to-ground and it’s going to take up this whole side because I want it bigger and I want to be able to pick out the little part of the radar that I’m trying to target.
The air-to-air display will have this element, this element, and the another element.
It will show me the electronic emissions that are in the air, but when I go to air-to-surface mode I don’t want to see all that so I’ll change what appears on the screen.
What’s interesting is when you get in to the debrief, you can see people’s how they do a displays tape and they’re all different.
For Skaff, it is very rewarding to be getting this kind of feedback from the F-35 pilot community and also the formation of an initial users group shaping demand for changes in the way the cockpit and its integrated systems operate.
In other words, he is learning what the pilots like and what they don’t; what works the way it was designed and what needs to be improved or changed.
When we approached the design of the F-35 cockpit, we actually thought of dividing the two screens into an air-to-air screen and an air-to-ground screen.
But the pilots did not want us to do that, for they wanted much greater flexibility to reshape to their operational demands and needs of the moment.
Now, the pilot can program what he wants to see on the tactical situation display. He has the air picture, the ground picture, or both pictures; a navigation picture or whatever he believes is most crucial to his mission success at that time.
And so what you described was what we had anticipated that each pilot would have a different technique, a different way to employ the jet. And so I’m glad to hear you say that.
I think though the technology is moving so fast and so now we see the commercial world it’s outpacing us. And we say, oh, I wish we had that in the cockpit.
Now we’re not yet ready for a technology refresh because there’s enough hardware robustness that we can just change the software.
And we’ve talked before about a software-defined jet. And so that’s good news. We can do a lot of upgrades and alterations using the software.
Question: Clearly, one change is in display area where change will come over time.
What is your thinking about this challenge?
Skaff: It is.
With regard to the sensors, there is a lot of trade space.
But in the displays where I work it is tighter. We are getting closer to the limits in graphics processing technology.
What you see on commercial displays may appear in the future on the airplane, but not right away.
When we talk to the manufactures of new gaming display technologies they make it clear that the virtual reality machines are using something called texture as opposed to vectors.
And so when sensors report battle space we typically portray that to the pilot in vector form, circles, squares, triangles, radar dishes, etc.
And so these chip makers told us their chips don’t do that.
We’re not quite there yet, but we’re almost there.
But we’re going to have to rethink how we portray information for the pilot.
And that’s always the trick.
Because we know that we’re deep in the information age and information dominance is what makes us lethal.
The person that can garner and use information the quickest and the best is going to be victorious.
And so the more I know and the better I can act on that.
And so in this information age we realize that that airplane is just a broker for information.
So the smart person can use gray matter to decide how to act upon that information and then dominate in battle space.
That really is the key. And we’ve talked about how do you dominate?
Do you interconnect the vehicles? Do you dominate that way?
And so if somebody knows something that I don’t know I may want to know it, but I don’t know until you show me what you have.
And so we’re to the point where you do a search on Google you get back too much information. You’ve got 10,000 hits on this search word, well, which one is the one you want?
Haven’t you done that before?
And you keep going next page, next page, next page, and five pages in was what you were really thinking about and going for.
And you wonder how come the machine couldn’t have put that on the first page?
What caused it to do that?
And so that’s what we’re wrestling with now.
Trying to figure out what the war fighter needs and when she needs it and determining the best way to present that information on those big displays is crucial for information dominance.
Question: Clearly, with a growing number of pilots flying the airplane, they will be key factors in shaping your thinking about the way ahead in engineering terms.
How do you see that process?
Skaff: When I worked on the F-16, many of the changes came from input from the pilots.
How are you using our product?
Where are the problems?
Where does it let you down?
What didn’t we think of that you want on the airplane?
We will do the same with the F-35.
And there is a new technological aspect which will shape the way ahead as well, namely the new helmet technology.
With pilots using both the screen and helmet technologies over time, they will determine how they use these integrated but different systems.
The helmet is working really well.
Remember we talked about that as being risky, and we’ve mitigated all the risk and we’re very pleased, have high expectations that it’s working better than anticipated.
And so there are things in there that we have not even dreamt of using that for. And looking through the airplane with DAS, that’s neat. But it’s way more than that.
That sensor has tremendous potential.
The hardware is installed, there’s plenty of trade space to change the software.
What else can those cameras detect?
And we are now reaching the point where we will shape military standards for the new helmet, and as we do so, provide baselines for moving ahead and future modernization.
Much of this will be determined by pilot use and re-engineering to deal with design shortfalls or simply desires by the operators to do it differently from how we initially designed the system to work.
For earlier discussions with Mike Skaff see the following: