The F-35 has been operational with the USMC for more than a year, and this summer with the USAF. The US Navy is getting ready for the introduction of the F-35 and already sees it as a key element of and trigger fro what Navy leadership calls the kill web. This means that the F-35 is see both as a new capability but part of a much broader transformation of the power projection force.
In this report, we look at perspectives of the US services and the allies on the impact of fifth generation enabled combat capabilities and ways to think about the patterns of transformation of the power projection forces.
Interviews have been conducted at the major bases and warfighting centers in the United States as well as interviews in the UK and Australia as well. There is a convergence of thinking about the broad strategic direction of the reshaping of power projection forces but a diversity of innovative approaches with regard to how best to achieve change.
21st century warfare concepts of operations, technology, tactics and training are in evolution and revolution. The F-35 is at the heart of this change for a very simple reason – it is a revolutionary platform, and when considered in terms of its fleet impact even more so. The F-35, Lightning II, will make combat aviation history with the first of kind sensor fusion cockpit. The F-35 is essentially an F/A/E-35 that makes it effective in AA, AG and EW combined missions. Allied and U.S. combat pilots will evolve and share new tactics and training, and over time this will drive changes that leaders must make for effective command and control to fight future battles.
An issue has been that the F-35 has been labeled a “fifth generation” aircraft, a sensible demarcation when the F-22 was being introduced. But the evolution of the combat systems on the aircraft, the role of the fusion engine, and the impact of a fleet of integrated F-35s operating as a foundational element will make the current term “5th Gen” obsolete. The F-35 is the first of a new generation of design features and airborne capabilities that will change everything. It is a first generation information and decision making superiority “flying combat system.”
The global fleet of F-35s will be the first generation for building a foundation for a fundamental change in the way air power operates in overall combat concepts of operations. It is not in and of itself a single aircraft platform; it is about what an integrated fleet of F-35s can deliver to TRANSFORM everything. The decade ahead will be very innovative. Combat warriors, at all ranks, can leverage what they learn and then apply those lessons to reshaping the force over and over.
The impact of an integrated fleet of F-35s with fused internal pilot combat data and also distributed information out, will allow the US and its allies to rethink how to do 21st century air-enabled operations. Each F-35 will be able to network and direct engagements in 360-degrees of 3-dimensional space by offloading tracks to other air/land/sea platforms including UAVs and robots.
The current head of the ACC when he was PACAF looked forward to the time when allies and the US forces had substantial numbers of F-35s flying in the Pacific area of operations and highlighted how dramatic he saw the coming changes to be.
“General Carlisle was asked what would be the impact of a fleet of F-35s (allied and US) upon a Commander of PACAF a decade out. It will be significant. Instead of thinking of an AOC, I can begin to think of an American and allied CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center). By sharing a common operating picture, we can become more effective tactically and strategically throughout the area of operations.”
The most neglected aspect of the roll out of the F-35 is its global nature. It is not just about the three US services, it is about partners and allies concurrently rolling out their F-35s and sorting out how their new air systems transform their forces. The F-35 is not an airplane; it is a global air combat system.
Although the F-35 is a U.S. aircraft, it has significant foreign content provided by an integrated global network of suppliers. With the introduction of F-35s globally, comes the nascent global sustainment enterprise. The forces are working out ways to leverage the commonality in the plane and the support structure to sustain those planes in combat.
It is a nascent effort, but is already laying down building blocks such as sustainment enterprise in Europe and Asia to support the partners, and the operation of U.S. forces from regional support centers, such as being built by the Italians, the Dutch or the Australians. The roll out of the aircraft is built upon a common logistics enterprise shaping a global sustainment effort similar to that of the successful the C-17 global enterprise.
Global defense industry, not just the U.S. defense industry, is significant to building AND sustaining the F-35. About 30% of the F-35 fleet will be built with foreign content, and the maintainability will rest on best practices from global suppliers. The F-35 logistics enterprise will not simply be forced to rely on sole source suppliers for any number of key parts produced globally. And with the system to identify parts, the performance of those parts will be put to the test and the better performing parts suppliers determined by performance in combat and in operations, not simply determined in a procurement bureaucracy.
Besides the US, the F-35’s nine partner countries are Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Turkey. And they’re a number of other countries buying the aircraft via a more traditional FMS acquisition route, including; Japan, South Korea, Israel and possibly Singapore. Each of these countries is buying the F-35 as part of their overall efforts to shape 21st century defense forces.
The global nature of the fleet – is a trigger for change and key allies are looking at F-35 enabled defense transformation. The coming of the F-35 triggers key aspects of shaping 21st century concepts of operations, we will focus on an examples of how concepts of operations can be reshaped, namely the evolution of “tron warfare” under the impact of the F-35 global fleet.
Leveraging the F-35 triggered transformation, rather than pursuing a stove-piped platform modernization and upgrade strategy, will be the essential catalysis to shape new platform acquisitions. The decade ahead will be one of significant innovation which will in turn build a technology, training and tactics foundation for what new systems will be important to develop in the decade after next.