Shaping a Way Ahead for Rapid Evolution of Air Combat Power and Its Impact On the Joint Command Authority


2018-02-09 By Robbin Laird and Edward Timperlake

Late last year, we published an interview with Secretary Wynne where he proposed an innovative way ahead on evolving air combat capability.

We want to revisit this discussion to highlight key elements of the proposal, which are important in and of themselves but also underscore the changing nature of the role of fighter aircraft in both the air combat space and in Joint Battlespaces.

The introduction of stealth designed sensor fusion aircraft with new secure communication systems and an inherent ability to trigger a wide range of multi-service; multi-domain combat assets is the foundation for understanding what comes next.

And what comes next is driven by the inherent upgradeability to insert many user directed requirements furthering the ability to enhance the airpower revolution generated by the fifth generation aircraft and building out the C2 and multi-service, multi-domain strike capabilities of the 21st century combat force.

In this day and age of the commercial revolution in upgradeable technologies, it is important for platforms to provide a framework for driving broader combat capabilities. This adaptively can be considered a key driver of what some have called the Third Offset

With the arrival of the software defined aircraft, a platform can be thought of as its own follow on with regard to evolving capabilities within and its ability to reach out to other assets in the combat space.

Much like the shape of the Smart Phone, there can be a decision separation as to the need to alter the platform, which may be physics based, and upgrading the network and sensor capability, which might inform the Joint fight, and in particularly the emerging Joint/Coalition Air Combat fight.

What Wynne proposed was moving ahead with an approach which would combine modernization monies for the F-22 with R and D money to deliver in a very short time frame new combat capabilities built around the F-22 airframe and a potentially new propulsion system.

According to Secretary Wynne, “I need to evolve a better airplane than the F-22 to have the same command and control characteristics as the F-35 while retaining the speed advantage that the F-22 was optimized for.

“I need the F-22 flight characteristics to be marginally better, in the speed of flight; range and, and perhaps even stealth capability; emphasizing ‘what have we learned’ during the years of operations.

“But I need it to be massively better in the command and control, communications, and targeting aspects.

“To get there, one could take two aging F-22s, give one to the Phantom Works and give one to the Skunk Works and ask them a simple question: how would you make this airplane better than it is?

“They would be given a budget for a three year effort and an open field in front of them.

“The USAF could send in crew and support teams to the two centers to enable them to determine what the pilots really want. But it is up to the Phantom Works and Skunk Works at the end of three years to deliver their best effort modified F-22.”

At the end of the three year period, the USAF would have two variants of the evolved F-22 to choose from and can compare those two modified aircraft with the extant one to determine if the modifications really make the kind of combat difference the USAF would want.

“It is apparent we have settled on stealth; we have settled on speed under control; we have settled on needs for C2 built into the aircraft. We do not need to go back and redefine those using the requirements process. Rather lets use them as massive beta tests with current and past operators as the critics.

“We know and are learning the parameters for the evolving F-35 and F-22 air combat force, and their impact to combined warfare.

“Now, make this airplane extend the capabilities of the total force.”

“What is a sixth gen aircraft? Right now, it is an evolved gen five airplane, with plenty of feedback—and a forward look at competition for the future.

“And what is that?

“The F-22 was optimally designed for penetration and speed.

“By leveraging as well what we are seeing in the F-35 we can shape its battle manager capabilities and roles as well.

“This allows one to jump the lengthy requirements setting process and gets the development teams focused on the ‘beta’ feedback for how to build out a better aircraft within the parameters of what a fifth-generation evolution is generating for the combat force. This best commercial practice first forces a revolution in thought as to what is ahead for future platforms, then forces a revolution in thought as to how Joint Command and Control adapts to the flow of situation awareness at the edge of the battlespace and beyond, and what to do about that.

“If you don’t like the outcome of this particular three-year study, you can commence a ten-year development program for what you perceive as the next generation air combat asset.”

There are a number of key advantages to such an approach, which draw upon the current and anticipated state of air combat evolution.

First, this builds out the combat capable network enabling combat operations.

The USAF clearly is focused on shaping an advanced C2 network built around B-21, BACN, F22 and F-35 – this would draw upon, evolve and enhance a force insertion C2 combat force able to operate at the cutting edge of the operational space.

Put in other terms, one would get an enhanced capability in the short to mid term and not wait for a futuristic 6th gen aircraft.

The mesh nets of a flexible set of force packages enabled by fifth generation aircraft would be significantly enhanced.

Second, the approach would build on the reality that there is a long cycle airframe development but there is a very short cycle to the evolution of software upgradeable electronics, avionics and C2 systems.

Recognizing that the F-22 is already a superior airframe, the task would be to evolve the guts of the aircraft to work within and push out the “meshnet” and the combat capabilities, which it empowers.

Third, the manufacturing innovation introduced into the F-35 and evident in the open ended digital thread line at Fort Worth can be leveraged as one focuses on manufacturability as a key element of building out the air combat force.

As Donald Kinard, a key Lockheed Martin expert on aircraft manufacturing has put it:

“Because of our digital thread approach we can incorporate innovations from the commercial space, which creates opportunities to improve quality and reduce costs.

“Our digital thread manufacturing process provides us with the opportunity to do so on an open-ended basis.

“This aspect of innovation built into the F-35 program is not widely appreciated.

“We’re able to harness the power of the major digital companies out there developing technologies in the commercial space, and spending enormous amounts of money, and all of a sudden those innovations are flowing our way.”

Fourth, the digital approach encompasses significant change in how maintenance data can flow into the design and manufacturing process, and the innovations with the new F-22 variant clearly need to enhance that capability.

Or put another way, innovations in logistics and sustainment are part of the ability to have enhanced combat impact from software upgradeable combat aircraft.

Again quoting Donald Kinard:

One needs to look at sustainment much like you look at manufacturing learning.

 “We’ve done a lot of learning over the past five years.

 “We know how to build the aircraft now.

 “That mystery is gone.

 “Now, we’re learning how to sustain that aircraft, and that data will be captured by systems like ALIS (advanced logistics information system).

 “We can then shape a global database as flight data accumulated so that everybody gets better.

 “Everybody who has an F-35 gets better.

 “With more than 250 planes out in the field, we are getting data from these aircraft and incorporating lessons learned into changes on the FAL itself.

 “This is the advantage of having a digital data stream to work with from design to manufacturing to sustainment and back again.

 “This allows for a digital learning curve, which enables both quality and performance to be enhanced. 

 “If customers take full advantage of the process, sustainment will be enhanced and sortie generation rates ramped up for the global F-35 fleet.

 This shift in how logistics informs operations and manufacturing is a core cycle, which would need to built into the projected new variant aircraft.

Fourth, by funding at two development teams, Phantom Works and Skunk Works, innovations can be driven into the air combat force by rethinking what the inside of the aircraft and their connectivity can do to drive innovation throughout the overall combat force. Innovations done this way can proliferate into multi-service, multi-domain weapons, remotes and other key elements in the integrated combat space.

It would be recognizing a core reality – in a software upgradable age, combat capabilities are always evolving and cross learning across platforms is a key driver for mission success. There has been much discussion of what some call the Third Offset. But like Moliere’s famous line by the Good Gentleman that I have “been speaking prose all my life, and didn’t even know it!” the Department of Defense is already incorporating digital upgradeability into its software upgradeable platforms.

Fifth, user groups, including inputs from USAF F-22 pilots and all the F-35 combat pilots at Nellis, (USAF), Fallon (USN) and Yuma (USMC) would be integrated into the ongoing research and into the redesign of the F-22.

Participants would sign non-disclosure agreements to provide insights usable to the technological innovations of the two teams and user demand would be recognized as of central importance to driving acquisition development, rather than the older requirements mandated process.

We would see a direct link as well from the work of Skunk Works and Phatnom works with the surface navy and army ADA as the entire “meshnet” is worked and radar innovations and tron warfare innovations are opened up to cross learning, and cross platform adoption as well.

Here the USAF through a new approach to fighter development, one rooted in recognizing that fifth generation fighters are really not at all like legacy fighters can open up the overall innovation set of approaches within the services, but also deliver real combat capability along the way, rather than simply leaving these as future thoughts.

The Air Force under General Goldfein is provoking innovative thought, and the Air Force is responding.

As the ACC Commander, General Holmes has put it the Air Force needs to bring the future forward.

And this reworking by the USAF of its new variant of the F-22 would be informed by user groups involved in multi-domain warfare to broaden the aperture of what is desired and possible on the new variant as a core enabler of the joint combat space.

Clearly, the Wynne approach would do that in very concrete and doable forms.

Building out a significant F-35 fleet, with the services and the allies is a crucial part of the renorming of airpower and the Wynne approach can allow the modernized F-22 to take greater advantage of the impacts of the F-35 global enterprise and its significant effects on renorming.