Fifth-Generation Aircraft in the Rear-View Mirror: Why has it taken so long to get the point?


By Robbin Laird

The continuing gap between acquiring the F-35 and strategically leveraging the F-35 global fleet  is significant.

Fifth-generation aircraft are part of the shift in warfighting to craft a kill-enabled force. This is what I refer as the importance of moving to F-35 2.0.

I discussed this challenge recently with my colleague Billie Flynn who has done an admirable job explaining his own his own fifth generation journey.

Flynn was Commanding Officer of 441 Tactical Fighter Squadron and Commanding Officer of Canadian Task Force Aviano during Operation Allied Force; flew combat missions over Kosovo and Former Replublic of Yugoslavia. This combat unit received Battle Honours from Queen Elizabeth II, the first such distinction for a Canadian fighting unit since World War II. He was the first pilot selected to fly the CF-18 in 1984. His military flying experience includes fighter and test pilot with the United States Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and NASA. During the 40+ years of flying, he tested advanced fighter aircraft around the globe. He is recently retired from the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company as the Senior F-35 Test Pilot. As a civilian test pilot, flew the Eurofighter Typhoon fighter in Munich, Germany.

Why has it taken so long to get the point about the different nature of fifth-generation aircraft and their ability to spearhead a defense transformation process?

The first point Flynn made is that “it is very hard for people to believe what they have never seen. The F-22 was enclosed in a USAF bubble and only became gradually realized that it was not some kind of replacement aircraft for the F-15, but a very different kind of aircraft.”

Secretary Wynne and Chief of Staff Mosely certainly realized that this was a problem and this is why they decided to put both allied and other service pilots into programs that allowed these pilots to become F-22 pilots.

“Chip” Berke was the most notable pilot who did this, and actually I sought him out and interviewed while he was at Nellis, and we interviewed him in Eglin, set up a Wynne-Berke meeting, and got him invited to Australia and Denmark to share his insights and experience.

But Wynne was fired and the top cover for explaining how fifth gen was a key enabler for the transformation of warfighting was eliminated.

And what remained was the F-35 program and its acquisition difficulties.

Flynn then argued that the “time of troubles” for the F-35 then dominated perceptions of what the aircraft was about. It was a “trillion-dollar aircraft” and a “troubled program” which dominated the news.

The F-35 was heading towards extinction due to the primacy of the land wars and their needs and the troubles the aircraft was experiencing in the first decade of the 21st century.

There were air power professionals who were working with the aircraft and who understood how different fifth-gen was. And the Marines with their commitment to the Osprey and the F-35B saw them as key drivers of their transformation effort and they led the way to drive the program to its eventual IOC. I wrote early books highlighting what I called “Three Dimensional Warriors.”

But Flynn underscored that “if you are looking at the F-35 with a legacy, replacement aircraft mentality, you can not possibly understand how it can be used to transform warfare and concepts of operations. This problem was evident at the beginning of the program and persists today.”

The debate about the plane was never just about the plane: it was about a nation’s approach to defense and to warfighting.

This meant that marketing the aircraft as a platform was not going to be enough.

As Flynn put it: “One had to operate within the triangle of politicians, the media and the public to succeed.”

Flynn noted that Australia was the exception that proved his point. From the beginning  for the Australian Defence Force, the F-35 was seen as the spearhead of “fifth-generation” warfare, not simply replacing the super hornet.

Why did it take so long to understand and accept fifth-gen?

The custodians of the message were fired. The program went into a decade of difficulties, creating a Greek chorus of critics. The land wars reinforced legacy thinking reducing the F-35 to a replacement aircraft option.

Only with the return of great power competition and the need to transform Western defense and airpower has the F-35 been seen as a key part of the transformation needed.

But the persistence of legacy thinking in countries like Canada continue to hobble F-35 acquisition and even more importantly defense transformation. As Flynn put it: “Canadian officials now are beginning to realize that they have a real monster on their hands. They will have to transform everything from infrastructure to personnel to the entire mindset of an armed forces. It is not just an Air Force acquisition.”

Featured Photo: This is a picture I took when onboard the USS Wasp during the first sea trials of the F-35B in 2011.

It will also be part of the cover of my new book to be published later this year entitled: My Fifth Generation Journey 2004-2018. And next year I am publishing a companion book entitled: The F-35 Global Enterprise: My Personal Journey. The second book will focus on my time working with the F-35 partners.