The Way Ahead for Western Fighters


By Robbin Laird

I have attended the International Fighter Conference in the past but missed this year’s offering. This year’s conference was held in Madrid, and I was interested in what was discussed at the conference as I am focused on the way ahead for Western air combat forces in the decade ahead.

First, I scanned recently press reports on the conference and really found two news threads. The first involved the Swedes and the fact that they had dropped out of the British led Tempest program and were now looking at their own requirements for their next combat jet. I am deliberately not using the characterization of next generation fighter for they may not indeed do such as my own view is that the air combat domain is changing way beyond consideration of a next generation fighter.

Gareth Jennings reported that Sweden had dropped out of the British led program.

“Speaking at the IQPC International Fighter Conference (IFC) 2023 under the Chatham House Rule, an official said that the national work followed the official termination of the country’s participation in the UK-led Future Combat Air System (FCAS) in 2022.

“We walked away from trilateral studies with [the] UK and Italy about a year ago, and launched a national study. I will not answer questions why it didn’t work with the UK and FCAS,” the official said on 7 November at the event in Madrid, adding only that had Sweden known in July 2019 when it signed up to FCAS what it knows now about its requirements, it would not have joined.”

Tim Martin in Breaking Defense also focused on the Swedish presentation.

“After joining and then leaving the UK-led Future Combat Air System (FCAS), the Swedish military is now holding off on deciding its path to a next-generation fighter jet until 2031, after it can assess the “risks and possibilities” with different approaches, an official said today.

“Three options are on the table for Stockholm: Either “build a system, develop a system with someone, or… acquire a system,” said the official, speaking under Chatham House Rules at the International Fighter Conference here in Madrid. “It’s an open question.”

“We did have both bilateral and trilateral cooperation with Britain and also with Italy on the FCAS program,” said the official. “We walked away from that about a year ago and started some national studies… connecting to what capabilities are needed for the future.” The official declined to comment on the reason behind Sweden ending collaboration with the UK and Italy.

“A decision has not been made by authorities so far on an Initial Operating Capability (IOC) date for whatever it chooses for a next-gen fighter, but a wide range of planning activities will inform the 2031 procurement decision.”

The only other story I found focused on Poland. There the emphasis was on the Polish air force looking at autonomous systems that would fly with the F-35 enabled Polish Air Force.

According to Shephard News:

“The Polish MoD has been evaluating the UAS market in search of a loyal wingman platform to work alongside its future fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35A fighter jet, the Deputy General Commander of the Polish Armed Forces has revealed.

“Addressing the International Fighter Conference 2023 in Madrid on 6 November, Maj General Cezary Wisniewski disclosed that the Polish Ministry of National Defence (NMD) was engaged in a comprehensive market assessment of the emerging loyal wingman uncrewed combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) capability. The evaluation has formed part of the ministry’s efforts to meet the requirements of the Harpii Szpon (Harpy’s Talon) adjunct programme for the F-35 fighters.

‘We are not yet at the point of an acquisition,’ Maj Gen Wisniewski said. ‘We are [now] just waiting for more information to be sure that we don’t make a mistake – we just want to join the mainstream approach, [but] we think that industry is not ready to provide the capabilities yet.’

My own sense is that discussions of next generation fighters although interesting are a bit premature.

First, the dominance of the F-35 within Western nations will provide a significant input to redefining air combat going forward. And the United States will face a major challenge of adapting its legacy mindset on security to the technological realties of a fleet of aircraft that can move vast amounts of data within a combat area to shape the kind of multi-domain warfare capabilities which are often highlighted but ignoring what the arrival of a F-35 global enterprise could enable.

The key is sensor fusion and the ability to do this as a wolfpack. I was in England for the DSEI conference held in London in early September. One of the discussions highlighted by the DSEI organizers on their content hub was with my guru and guide for many years in the UK’s process of adopting the F-35, then Group Captain Paul Godfrey and now Air Vice-Marshal Godfrey. He has moved from dealing with combat air to the new space efforts being worked by the UK Ministry of Defence.

Air Vice Marshal Gary Waterfall (Retired) interviewed “Godders” about the challenges of setting up the new UK space command. As the first commander of UK space command, Godders has brought a wide range of experience in terms of working combat air with the broader force transformation effort being pursued by the UK, through the difficult periods of the Brexit transition.

A key theme which was discussed was the focus on being able to access space to deliver the kind of ISR-T and C2 information to a deployed force. Godders made a key point that sensor fusion from space assets was a key challenge facing the force and in doing so he highlighted a key point often neglected when talking about the F-35 and its impact on force transformation, namely, its revolutionary impact on sensor fusion in the cockpit of F-35s operating as a wolfpack.

This is what Air Vice-Marshal Godfrey highlighted:

“Data validation is key. If we both go back to a previous platform that we both worked with, the F-35, it shows one how it can be done. The data from the various sensors around the airplane are fused in the fusion engine. The radar might think that there’s a 70% chance it is x. Another sensor might indicate that it is 100% chance, or 99.9%. chance that it’s x. And data fusion then can present the pilot with that answer that it is 98% certain that it is x. The legal people have had a look at it and that might be enough for you to shoot at the target.

“That’s what I’m looking for in terms of how we bring data together or how we fuse it. When you scale that across the enterprise and pair data sources, where is that done? Do you do all of that at the source on a satellite? That’s why we’re doing this with some of our operational capability demonstrators. Or do you wait for that information to be sent down? Is your F 35 brain in the Space Operations Center? Is it done at edge processing?

“To provide answers, we’re doing experiments over the next couple of years to see what works, what doesn’t work for sensor fusion from our space data.”

What Godders is talking about is the data ecosystem which is being worked to deliver the kind of ISR-T and C2 capabilities necessary for the kind of force transformation underway. And it should not be forgotten what the F-35 as a global enterprise can provide.

Second, next generation UAVs, autonomous systems, are the other major driver of the dynamics of change for the air combat force. Although referred to as wingman they are not that at all. No fifth-generation pilot wants a wingman, that is legacy thinking par excellence.

The new generation of longer-range UAVs provide significant force multiplier capabilities for the outside force, and with ISR and C2 payloads to the inside force as well. It is not so much manned-unmanned teaming as it is filling gaps that currently cannot be filled or as complements to the crewed platforms in the current force.

With the growing impact of the global F-35 force, the next big thing is almost certainly going to be building up a next generation UAV force that fills the gaps and complements the force.

To get an update on what the news stories from the conference did not focus on, I talked with my colleague Billie Flynn who attended the conference to get his take on the way ahead for the fighter world and how the conference addressed this.

First, Flynn underscored his concern with regard to the future of the Royal Canadian Air Force in which he served for many years. Given the atrophy of Canadian airpower, the number of pilots has been significantly reduced. This means that although the CAF is finally to acquire the F-35, the CAF is facing a significant pilot shortfall. He raised these questions with the Canadian speaker who really had no answer as to how they were going to deal with this challenge.  There does not appear to be a solution on how to produce enough fighter pilots to man the F-35s when they arrive in Canada which will have implications for NORAD and NATO alliances.

Second, he emphasized that the F-35 global enterprise was gaining momentum in ways that most European political leaders simply did not anticipate. But he saw a divide between the AUKUS three – the U.S., Australia, and the UK – and the rest of the F-35 global enterprise with regard to the kind of collaboration which the jet clearly empowers.

Third, he was very skeptical with regard to the European programs which have been generated, whether the British-led one or the French-led one. Much like the Tornado and Eurofighter programs of the past, the emphasis was on workshare and investment distribution, not lethality, effectiveness, or advanced technology integration. Where are the export opportunities? And what is their relationship to what the F-35 dominance in European air forces will yield in terms of change in air combat?

And he agreed that the priority impact of figuring out how to use the F-35 and the coming of autonomous air systems would predominate operational realities over projected new fighter projects.

Of course, a major impact will come from the B-21 and the entire process of weaponization which will have a decisive impact certainly on the way ahead for the USAF. A fifth generation fighter global enterprise plus autonomous air systems plus a new bomber plus new weapons will almost certainly dominate the real world of air combat evolution much more than development and acquisition of a new fighter.

Featured Photo: Royal Australian Air Force F-35A Lightning II and Republic of Korea Air Force KF-16U Fighting Falcon aircraft conduct air to air refueling with a Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport and a Republic of Korea Air Force Multi-Role Tanker Transport in the skies around Darwin as part of Exercise Pitch Black 2022. Credit: Australian Department of Defence.