My Fifth Generation Journey: 2004-2018


By Robbin Laird

From the introduction to the Book:

In their preface to their book on the F-35, the authors start with this statement: The F-35s journey through time has been unlike any other in the annuals of aerospace and defense history. It was devised under the gospel of acquisition reform, it undertook the unprecedented challenge of unifying three very different U.S. services in a common platform to replace ten existing and aging aircraft, it involved eight other allied nations in the development and production phases, and it was charged with delivering transformational military capability across the joint allied partnership.

(Tom Burbage, et. al., F-35: The Inside Story of the Lightning II (Skyhorse Publishing, 2023), ix.)

This book is quite different in how to tell the F-35 story. It is my personal journey observing the development and evolution of the aircraft from my time working with the man who coined the term fifth-generation aircraft, Michael W. Wynne, through my many visits to F-35 sites, interviews with pilots, maintainers, and U.S. and allied government officials who navigated through the incredibly negative press and government officials trying to kill the program to have delivered a unique capability in the history of combat aircraft.

I continue to observe the impact of what I labelled early on as the F-35 global enterprise as a way to enhance the efforts of the liberal democracies to deal with the threats posed by the 21st century authoritarian powers. But now I am focusing on the evolution of the approach to warfighting enabled by the fifth-generation revolution, namely, the shaping of a kill web enabled distributed force.

My key partner in this journey has been Ed Timperlake. It turns out that both Ed and I had worked for Wynne but never met while doing so. Later we met and begin our effort to interview actual doers in the process of testing and flying the aircraft and maintaining it. As a former USMC squadron pilot of the A-4, Ed taught me much on this journey.

It is a personal journey and I take the reader to many of the places where I went to talk with the F-35 nation. But I did so not only in the United States but in the nations of key members of the F-35 global enterprise. My journey is unique and I tell it not because of a desire to be remembered but in playing a role of recorder of history of those members of the military of many nations who made this capability real despite the media and many government officials desires to see them fail.

But failure would have meant that we would have had even less capability than we have now after 20 years of fighting in wars of “stability” which have brought us the opposite.

My travels encompassed the United States, Australia and Europe. The partners were from the beginning my entry point and where I would put in considerable effort to understand how different partners were approaching the global enterprise and what they saw as its contribution to their own defense.

But to tell of these travels and engagements requires a separate book which I will publish as an extension of this one. In this book, I tell the story of my first encountering the F-35 and F-22 when working as a consultant to the Department of Defense and then of my experiences with the various services and partners up until 2018 when I began focusing on the strategic shift from the land wars to what the Trump Administration called the “age of great power competition.”

I had spent my professional time in the 1980s and 1990s working extensively in Europe on many defense and security issues. When I would address the F-35 within the European context, I would do so with more than 20 years of experience in European defense issues, and had published several books on European defense issues.

I would also come to my work on the F-35 with Wynne having worked on defense industrial reform, including working with the USCG with their Lead Systems Integrator (LSI) led Deepwater Program, which in many ways was the failed antecedent of the F-35 enterprise which was in effect an LSI-led effort. I am not focusing on the industrial side of the program in this book, although that deserves its own book.

I have written about this period of my work in my co-authored book with Kenneth Maxwell entitled, Two Twentieth Century Men in the Twenty-First Century. So I was hardly a novice when considering the F-35 as part of global defense cooperation and in this regard the antecedent of the F-35 effort was what I had termed the “Aegis Global Enterprise” which I had worked on in the 1990s.

As I wrote in my January 2012 article The Long Reach of Aegis:

The U.S. national program has grown into an international enterprise. Several partners have purchased and developed Aegis capabilities for a variety of ships. In fact, every nation that has bought the system has placed it in its own preferred hull.

Innovative approaches to reshaping Aegis to fit on foreign ships and working with foreign shipyards have both been central to the global enterprise, which would not even exist had the United States followed an export policy that insisted on the complete U.S. package of ship and system.

In turn, international engagement has had a significant impact on the U.S. program. Worldwide sales have kept gaps from being significant in production of the system, and the intercontinental quality has meant that stocks in the supply chain have remained on an even keel. As one defense industrialist said to me:

The larger the club you’re in from a lifetime support point of view, the better off you are. You can almost say emphatically if you need a spare part for an Aegis ship, you’re going to be able to get it 20 years from today, because there are so many of them out there; and Uncle Sam’s going to support them, and there’s a large number of international partners engaged so the price point will be reasonable from the supply chain.

So again I was coming at the F-35 effort with a strong background not just on European defense but in terms of collaborative programs as well.

When I met Mike Wynne at a CSIS event, he was serving as the Deputy to Pete Aldridge, when Aldridge was head of DoD acquisition. Eventually, this led to the opportunity to work as a consultant to him when he became head of acquisition and then when he came Secretary of the USAF.

I had a chance for four years from 2004 to 2008 to work with him and members of his team. It was really fascinating to see how someone who knows what they are doing and does not have a big ego, and is able to build a competent staff works and accomplishes many, many things.

I worked initially for Wynne through a contract with Al Volkman who worked intentional programs within the acquisition directorate. Volkman had been tasked by Aldridge to lead the JSF concept demonstration phase international cooperative agreement strategy. So working with Volkman and his office in direct support of Wynne, it was hardly surprising that part of my European work was in support of the evolving F-35 partner strategy.

Volkman was a key official in working with the Europeans and provided key support to the head of acquisition for the regular meetings of the national armaments directors. I provided input to that process as well as to several subjects on which the office was working including, NATO’s AGS program, various UAV competitions and cooperations, RFID and logistical modernization for the U.S. and allied NATO forces, maritime security collaborative opportunities and, of course, JSF. The main focus in this period for JSF and the partners was upon the British and their engagement in the program and the legacy F-16 Nordic countries plus Italy.

I produced a briefing in the Fall of 2006 which focused on ways to augment the prospects for success in the program which highlighted the need to connect the fighter competition with the strategic and warfighting context. How does the acquisition of a fifth generation fighter affect the warfighting capabilities of our allies?

It was in this context that I suggested the emphasis should be upon the JSF not as a tactical fighter but as a “flying combat system.” And a fleet of F-35s was able to function as a “flexible multi-mission tool to a variety of combat and peace support operations.”

I argued that the core JSF case being made “overlooks the advantages of partner innovations in con-ops and innovations in the use of the aircraft.”

Wynne had coined the phrase “fifth generation” to emphasize the break which F-22 and F-35 posed to legacy tactical fighters. With Wynne, the con-ops with regard to the aircraft, and the forcing function of fifth generation aircraft on shaping the concept of operations for a new approach to air warfare, which we we now call-multi-domain, was always central to his thinking.

An illustration of this is an op-ed he wrote for Aviation Week and Space Technology which was published in 2007. The final draft prepared for publication (I can not find the published version in my files) was entitled: The Interdependent Fight: Spherical Situation Awareness as a Keystone for a Global Security Enterprise.

The text as prepared as of my December 15, 2016 version was as follows:

The evolving strategic environment places a premium on global operations with allies and partners in providing comprehensive security. This networking forms a “Global Security Enterprise.” Interconnected operations among our partners in OEF and OIF are an early illustration. Another illustration is the concept of a networked, multi-partner “1,000 ship Navy”, advanced by the Chief of Naval Operations.

The USAF has a key role in shaping U.S. options for crafting a Global Security Enterprise. With the reach and persistence of modern air power – space, air-breathing strike, ISR, lift, tanking, cyberwar and related capabilities – the USAF will be a linchpin for U.S. and coalition capabilities in global security operations.

With modern ISR, the USAF provides an important contribution to the persistent awareness to shape a global security monitoring system. Integration of air and ground with maritime forces is increasingly possible given the evolution of technology.

And the USAF has a key role in shaping technological options for global reach, persistence and integration. Indeed, USAF innovation to help craft a Global Security Enterprise is a key aspect of USAF Air, Space, and Cyber planning.

But it is the thoughtful shaping of coalition capabilities that will provide the authority within which power may be exercised in the turbulent years ahead. Today’s air forces are being reshaped as core participants in interdependent military operations. We are moving rapidly beyond joint operations as a planning concept to actually shaping capabilities for “The Interdependent Fight.”

The USAF is combining close air strike/close air support (CAS) on the same platforms that already have key roles in performing ISR engagement with the ground forces. The battle domains of Ground, Air, and Cyberspace are becoming interconnected within an evolving Global Security Enterprise.

The interdependent fight calls for comprehensive and dynamic situation awareness. We thought in the past in terms of 360-degree awareness. Today, the American warrior has evolved to what I refer to as Spherical Situation Awareness. This is a new reality. It calls for a new habit of thought and joint and coalition operational capabilities. It is the habit of taking a comprehensive, spherical view, at once vertical and horizontal, real-time and predictive, penetrating and defended in the cyber realm, eliminating as much as possible obstacles of terrain, weather, foliage, darkness, jamming and Cyber-defense, all the means of surprise that provide cover and resources to the enemy, even buried objects and targets.

Spherical Situation Awareness delivers to an interdependent force the tools of precision fires, including measures to avoid innocent casualties, and to get instant feedback to all on the interdependent network. Spherical Situation Awareness is built on a flexible and fluid ISR structure, which allows information to pass throughout the operational cycle. In The Interdependent Fight, Air, Space, Cyber and Sea Power first set the conditions for victory by destroying enemy Lines of Communication and preventing air attack on ground forces and logistic lines, and at the same time strike ground fighters who oppose our Army and Marine forces.

Interdependence means Army and Marine ground fighters pass intelligence to Air Force controllers at their side, who call loitering air power for strikes. The same information flow applies in reverse. We can now pass intelligence real time from air to surface as well. Most of our fighter aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles can track the foe and pass streaming video or enable the use of visible LASER pointers directly to ground fighters, visible on their Night Vision Goggles.

Coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are replete with rapid innovation of this air-ground detect and kill net. Laptop – and eventually handheld – computers with even small unit and convoy commanders show real-time movement of the foe. Convoys in motion have look-ahead on their routes. Latent signs of efforts to emplace IED’s are found from the air so that suspect ground is checked. Enemy communication of many forms is tracked and correlated with video.

Almost daily our young Airmen, Soldiers and Marines are improvising and then fielding even better connectivity as they learn the immense flexibility and capability of the detect and kill tools at their disposal. An early famous example is the innovation of a field-expedient high-gain antenna for a Humvee, to pull down data from air platforms. In many ways, our doctrine of Interdependence is being born in the Fight.

In addition, a revolutionary step upward in battle awareness is upon us. Fifth Generation fighters – the F-22A Raptor and F-35 Lightning II – are not only breakthrough kinetic platforms but, like electromagnetic “vacuum cleaners”, can “Hoover” up vast target information and interconnect with fighters in all domains. On way to and from target, they can collect and disseminate information, just as is being done over Iraq, where pods on fighters gather data constantly.

But in the Fifth Generation, the integration of information management within the aircraft is far more powerful than a small adjunct system in a wing pod. We are learning that Fifth Generation aircraft do not even have to operate in kinetic mode to remain in high demand as participants in the Spherical Awareness mode.

These airplanes are far more than the fighting plane of old. Each plane is itself a full battlespace sensor, a direct arm of the battlespace manager. With these, if you will, “first generation flying combat systems,” we can shift to peer-to-peer networking with aircraft in the battlespace, rather than managing through large aircraft flying at a distance. Bringing a wide-body aircraft within range of anti-aircraft missiles is a bad idea, increasingly unnecessary.

The capability borders on that of a total battle management system, a multiplier of the Combined Air Operations Center itself. We are only now realizing this massive capability. These new planes bring a breakthrough in shaping capabilities for the Global Security Enterprise.

To play its new role as core participant in the Spherical Domain of warfare, the USAF is vigorously strengthening our Air, Space and Cyberspace capabilities for The Interdependent Fight. This means strengthening partnerships with ground and naval forces, constantly re-defining interdependent military operations, leveraging capabilities on the Ground and Sea and across Air, Space and Cyberspace.

In short, 21st century military operations will operate within the context of a Global Security Enterprise. Notably, the F-35 program is a key contributor to the international partnering that lets us think in terms of a Global Security Enterprise, a defense and warfighting network that makes the sum of power of the combined nations far greater than the individual parts. The USAF will be a key contributor.

I am encouraging ground commanders always to know what assets are available to them and make sure that they look, consider, and exploit fully, constantly, interactively, and completely inter-connectedly the battle domains of Sea, Land, Space, Air and Cyberspace.

This text reflects the diversity of Wynne’s thinking in which fifth-generation aircraft are part of a wider whole. He was a pioneer in getting the Department of Defense to focus on cyber warfare; he was critical in sponsoring work on remotely piloted vehicles and introduced Rover into the battlespace in the land wars.

The point simply put — it was always about evolving concepts of operations and warfighting capabilities; it was never JUST about fifth generation aircraft. But Mike certainly focused on fifth generation aircraft as a key driver of change….

When Wynne as Sec Air Force would resign over several issues with Secretary Gates, including the fifth-generation one, the fifth-generation effort would lose its architect connecting fifth-generation fighters with the broader effort to shape a new warfighting strategy.

It would take time for the F-35 to go through its time of troubles and to emerge by the end of the decade as a well recognized new capability, but it is still facing the challenge of being connected with the strategic shift to the art of warfare needed to deter and defeat an adversary like China.

The significance of Wynne’s firing was underscored by the late retired Australian General and Senator Jim Molan in his 2022 book on the need for Australia to deal with the China challenge: The U.S. is surfacing from decades of war in the Middle East with worn-out equipment, understandably having allocated a lot of its funding to ‘today’s wars’ rather than investing in the future.

During the Iraq War, for instance, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates wanted more drones to carry on the day-to-day fight in Iraq and found himself in conflict with the U.S. Air Force, which wanted to continue building the fighters and bombers that it thought would be needed in the future.

Gates sacked the chief of the U.S. Air Force and restricted the production of aircraft such as the stealth F-22 fighter and the B-21 bomber, in order to build the drones and other aircraft he needed. The result was that only a limited number of the extraordinary F-22s were built and the B-21 is still not in production.

The impact of diverted spending and focus will be felt for a long time to come. The likely war with China, if it is ever fought by weapons of this type, is going to be fought by a very small number of modern stealth fighters, but mainly by U.S. fighters and bombers that are 20 to 30 years old. The result of all this is that the U.S. will not be able to marshal sufficient military power to deter China in the Western Pacific, possibly for years.

(Jim Molan. Danger On Our Doorstep (pp. 106-107). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)

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 which I discuss in my last chapter.

I discussed this challenge with my colleague Billie Flynn in an August 2023 interview who has done an admirable job explaining 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 Republic 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: 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.