Blue Water and Blue Skies: Working Air-Maritime Integration


It is clear that when either looking at the North Atlantic or the Pacific theater of operations, neither the USAF nor the USN are in a position to dominate as stove-piped services or without integrated operations with core allies.

In building out the integrated distributed force, a core challenge facing the sea and air services is how to work more effectively together, how to leverage interactive kill webs to make the right decisions at the right time to deliver the right outcome.

Discussions with the cutting edge war-fighting centers in the United States have made it clear that that this is a core priority for the sea and air services, but that it is also a work in progress.

Last Fall, the head of the RAF made a presentation at the Mitchell Institute which focused on RAF and USAF collaboration.

And this month a Forum publication was released which drew from that presentation.

The summary to the Forum piece highlighted the core points:

Based on an address he delivered during a ‘Mitchell Hour’ on October 11, 2019, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mike Wigston gives his appraisal of the current and future state of the RAF-USAF bilateral relationship.

After setting out the changing geostrategic context which is challenging the post-1945 rules-based international order, ACM Wigston provides his analysis of the growing state-based threats across all domains that are stalking the U.S., U.K. and their allies.

He goes on to demonstrate the enduring closeness of the two air forces’ relationship and why, in an emerging era in which multi-domain operations and information advantage will be decisive, the USAF and RAF need to redouble their partnering efforts.

He argues that ‘control of the air’ – and, increasingly, space – remains the foremost responsibility of air forces, but the U.S. and U.K. edge has been eroded in recent decades as competitor states have advanced their own capabilities.

ACM Wigston identifies the F-35 program as a vital vehicle through which to promote the collaborative ideals stated in the USAF- RAF Shared Vision Statement – not least through the close location of the RAF’s and USAFE’s F-35 bases in England – but that advancements in information exchange, logistics systems, and C2 systems are even more important.

The renaissance of the U.K.’s carrier strike capability will provide further collaborative opportunities, not least through the embarkation of USMC F-35Bs on U.K. aircraft carriers.

The intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sphere provides evidence of excellent and efficient collaboration between the USAF and RAF, not least through the RC-135 Rivet Joint and MQ-9 Reaper programs. The RAF has also developed strong links with the U.S. Navy, which has paid dividends in the restoration of the RAF’s maritime patrol capability.

The RAF air chief noted later in the piece the core point about integratability:

But integration goes much further than simply being able to operate in the same piece of sky or from the same carrier deck. The real challenge is ensuring that our information systems, data links, tactics, and logistical systems are all aligned.

We have driven forward 4th and 5th generation integration through the ‘Point Blank’ series of exercises that involve RAF F-35s and Typhoons, and USAF F-15s and F-35s.

Back in July, our F-35s exercised with B-2 Spirit bombers during their deployment to RAF Fairford in England – the first international fifth-generation training of its kind. We have hot-pitted and cross-serviced visiting F-35 fighter squadrons, just like the old AMPLE GAIN exercises we conducted as NATO partners in Germany before the end of the Cold War.

Our ambition doesn’t stop there. The ability to share data and forge deeper interoperability across datalink networks has to reach the point where U.S. and

U.K. F-35s are interchangeable in a four- ship formation, where our synthetic environments are fully connected to allow relevant collective training, and where follow-on operational test and evaluation is optimized….

What can be missed is the maritime services part of all of this.

First, the RAF and the Royal Navy are operating their F-35Bs (a Marine Corps variant) as an integrated force.

Second, the RAF is shaping a core part of their extended battle space efforts around the contribution of the UK’s large deck carrier.

Third, a significant targeting contribution to the 4th Battle of the Atlantic will be delivered by the RAF in its role within the allied maritime domain enterprise, and those targets are both for air and maritime operations.

And when discussing the kill web, it is not about the service insignia on the asset, it is about the ability to craft an interactive and integrated sensor shooter enterprise.

USAF and RAF Integration.

The featured photo shows an F-35B on HMS Queen Elizabeth for First of Class Flight Trials (Fixed Wing) on Oct. 10, 2018.

For an interview in 2014 with an airman involved in the UK’s airpower transition which highlights the cross-learning between the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, see the following:

The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force Prepare for Cross-Domain Transformation: The F-35 and the Queen Elizabeth Carrier

And in a 2016 Williams Foundation Seminar, the evolution of air-sea integration with the emergence of a fifth generation force was the focus of analysis: