F-35 2.0 and Changing the Defense Eco-System


By Robbin Laird

We have argued for more than a decade that leveraging fifth generation aircraft allowed for the re-norming of airpower.

With the evolution of the F-35 and with the buy of the aircraft by several key allies, those allies are starting to introduce the aircraft into their forces, but are doing so with an eye to the overall transformation of their force structure.

They are leveraging the multi-domain aircraft as a trigger for overall transformation of their force and are looking at concurrent or follow on developments to facilitate such change.

There is no better example of this than the Royal Australian Airforce and the Australian Defence Force which have looked at the acquisition of the F-35 as the beginning of a longer road of becoming a fifth-generation combat force.

One of the architects of this approach has been Air Vice Marshal (Retired) John Blackburn.

In a recent interview with him shortly after my return from Australia, we discussed the approach and the challenges to shaping a transformed ADF.

Blackburn: The acquisition of the F-35 has triggered people to expand their field of view and to start thinking about the whole force and how this can amplify the whole force and what does that mean.

“In other words, instead of just focusing on the airplane itself, we are focusing on the ecosystem of change associated with the aircraft which can provide for defense transformation.

“The real challenge of course, with any great idea, is: “How do you implement it?”

“This requires focusing on the roadblocks to change and to understand how the entire defense eco system needs to change to enable the kind of continuous change which a fifth generation force both needs and facilitates.

“We need to focus upon the roadblocks that will stop us from achieving and implementing this great idea?

Question: Clearly, the aircraft as a multi-domain asset challenges the traditional notions of C2 and ISR being located in specialized platforms or managed horizontally.

One challenge is that a number of services are still focused on fifth gen as if it was a multi-mission rather than a multi-domain asset and putting into a legacy box, rather than expanding the aperture and transforming the force.

The problem is that the plane, from the beginning, gets pushed into a box that doesn’t actuate the capabilities of the air system itself, and then the question … we should be focusing on F-35 2.0 in terms of: “What are the barriers to really changing the rest of the force?”

And that’s what you’re talking about.   

How do you go about getting a shift in focus?

Blackburn: You highlight a change in language and concepts in discussing the way ahead.

“When Secretary Wynne generated the idea of fifth gen what he clearly focused upon was changing Air Force language thinking.  We cannot operate the F-22 or the F-35 like an F-15 or F-16; these are radically different aircraft and we need to operate them very differently.

“But this is a difficult challenge to get services fundamentally to change their concepts of operations to really leverage a breakthrough technology.

“But change has occurred.

“And when our F-22 exchange pilots come back to the RAAF from flying with the USAF, they clearly have understood and have discussed with their peers how fifth generation was a revolution in air combat and had to be treated that way.

“When we generated our Plan Jericho effort we had in mind something similar to what Secretary Wynne did, namely how do talk about our approaches very differently leveraging the new platform?

“We’re using that language like Secretary Wynne did to talk now about a fifth-generation force, and we’re starting to see some progress.

“Clearly, we need to take a broad view of the dynamics of change. Just buying the platform does not get you where you want to go.  We need to focus on a broader innovation by design approach to really create a fifth-generation combat force and this really is a change in the defense eco system.

“When we buy an innovative system, like the F-35, it will not by itself lead to the kind of change which we need. What we need to do is to take a broader look at force design leveraging the aircraft to reconfigure the force.

“If we do not design an integrated force, we are always going to play catch up and do after market integration.”

Question: But to do this will require a fundamental change in the defense eco system and how defense operates a procurement and support organization.

How do you view this challenge?

John Blackburn: We are using the business model of the past twenty years when we have acquired standalone platforms and try to figure out how they would work together in the post-acquisition phase.

“But we need to change how the whole organization itself works. The warfighters get what the F-35 drives in terms of change; but this integrative approach is not being replicated on the level of acquisition which is still a stove piped process and world.

“We are preparing to fly fifth generation aircraft in a legacy eco system; this simply does not make sense.

“The design process for the overall force is where significant change needs and can occur.

“What this means is that you look at an effect which you want to create with the overall force and you look at your mix of platforms and determine which can lead the design change to achieve that effect, rather than simply doing additive modernization of every platform.

“You are targeting innovation on a lead platform rather than simply doing innovation by addition.

“The F-35 poses a significant challenge because it delivers weapons, its delivers non-lethal effects, it is an ISR platform, it is a C2 platform, and can itself deliver organic strike or simply delegate to a partner aircraft or system.

“Such a platform simply blows apart the traditional structure and if you pursue integration it is clearly a driver for change; if you don’t you will reduce the aircraft to one of its functions rather than leverage it for multi-domain, cross platform integrated innovation and combat learning.

“We need to take the energy evident at the tactical combat level and inject that into the strategic culture at the top which simply cannot tap into effectively the kind of fifth generation innovation we are seeing from operators.

“This is the first major roadblock, namely, the business model.”

Question: You have discussed other roadblocks, namely, in the energy and network space.

How do you view these roadblocks?

John Blackburn: When we focus on the design of the force, clearly a key requirement is energy supply and security.

“How do we get electricity to a base?

“How do we support our supply chains?

“What’s the energy aspects of this future force design?

“Today, there are no future energy concepts or designs in place.

“What’s happened is we have assumed that, somehow, the fuels and energy we need to operate our future force will be delivered by the market, which would be virtually impossible in a crisis in our region.

“With regard to networks, we have a multiplicity of networks and a legacy security system which cauterizes information in ways that make no sense to a rapidly operating fifth generation force.

“In terms of network design, we don’t have a good foundation upon which we can build the fifth-generation force networks.

“Another roadblock is that we do not have yet in place an industrial policy that will provide for all the sovereign capabilities we will need in terms of a severe crisis.

“Notably, we do not have an appropriate weapons policy.

“We build traditional ammunition but not missiles.  This makes no sense, in terms of the inherent capabilities which we have or could have to develop and build weapons in country.

“And without weapons, the JSF is not much use.

“If we do not address such roadblocks, we could end that with the platforms that aren’t integrated properly, that aren’t supported properly, and that’s a risk that we’ve got to really face today, not in five or ten years when we actually get the platforms in service.”

The featured graphic highlights F-35 and Aegis integration, which is an element of F-35 2.0, namely reshaping the role of fires associated with the tactical aircraft.


Two pre-eminent weapon systems, the F-35 Lightning II and Aegis Weapon System, worked together for the first time during a live fire exercise…..

During the Sept. 12 test, an unmodified U.S. Marine Corps F-35B from the Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1, acted as an elevated sensor and detected an over-the-horizon threat. The F-35B sent data through the aircraft’s Multi-Function Advanced Data Link (MADL) to a ground station connected to the Aegis Weapon System on the USS Desert Ship (LLS-1), a land-based ship. The target was subsequently engaged and intercepted by a Standard Missile 6.

“One of the key defining attributes of a 5th Generation fighter is the force multiplier effect it brings to joint operations through its foremost sensor fusion and external communications capabilities,” said Orlando Carvalho, executive vice president, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. “Those attributes were successfully proven at White Sands Missile Range in a very realistic demonstration of distributed lethality leveraging a U.S. Marine Corps F-35B and the U.S. Navy’s Aegis Weapon System. This only scratches the surface of the potential warfighting capabilities F-35 aircraft will ultimately enable across our military forces.”

This capability, when fully realized, will significantly increase the warfighters’ situational awareness using Aegis and the F-35 together to better understand the maritime operational environment. Using any variant of the F-35 as a broad area sensor, the aircraft can significantly increase the Aegis capability to detect, track and engage.