For years, the news about the most expensive conventional weapons system in US history, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, has been driven by its enormous cost, design, and schedule screw-ups. The Pentagon and Congress and the public have rarely spoken about what the F-35 would do, how effectively it could destroy an enemy’s air defenses, shoot down an enemy plane, or find and strike other high value targets.
Air Force Gen. Mike Hostage, who will command the largest group of F-35s in the world, recently sat down with me in his office at Langley Air Force Base to discuss what the F-35 can do in the first 10 days of war — within the constraints of what is classified. Much of what appears in the following story is drawn from months of interviews with dozens of experts in the government, the defense industry and academia to flesh out some of its more exotic and lesser known capabilities.
This is the second and final story in what we hope will become regular coverage about the F-35’s capabilities as it flies closer to production and is sold around the world to America’s allies. The F-16 changed how America and its friends planned to fight wars. It helped guarantee one of the most important fundamentals of modern warfare — clear skies for us and our friends so we could bring the fight to a more vulnerable enemy. The F-35 takes the place of the F-16 and also replaces the EA-6B, F-111, A-10, AV-8B, Italy’s AMX and the British and Italian’s Tornado. No other aircraft carries such responsibility for so many, nor has one ever cost so much.
These are the capabilities that most excite the experts I’ve spoken with because they distinguish the F-35 from previous fighters, giving it what may be unprecedented abilities to confuse the enemy, attack him in new ways through electronics (think Stuxnet), and generally add enormous breadth to what we might call the plane’s conventional strike capabilities.
So I asked Air Force Gen. Mike Hostage, head of Air Combat Command here, about the F-35’s cyber capabilities, mentioning comments by former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz several years ago about the F-35 having the “nascent capability” to attack Integrated Air Defense Systems (known to you and me as surface to air missiles) with cyber weapons.
Hostage deftly shifts the conversation each time I press for insights on the F-35’s cyber and EW. He doesn’t refuse to talk, as that would be impolite and, well, too obvious.
He starts off with what sounds like a shaggy dog story.
“When I was a youngster flying F-16s we would go fly close air support at the National Training Center for the Army,” he tells me. “They would have a large ground force: blue guys, OpFor [opposing forces], they’d go out and have big battles on the ground. And they would bring the [Close Air Support] CAS in to participate. They’d let us come in, we’d fly for 30 minutes and then they’d shoo us away because they wanted to have their force on force and if they allowed the CAS to participate during force on force it fundamentally changed the nature of the ground battle.”
Want To Shoot Someone? Turn Off The Cyber
Then he brings us back to the issue at hand, and mentions the Air Force’s Red Flag exercises, the pinnacle of the service’s force-on-force training: “Fast forward to today. We do Red Flag for the purpose of giving our young wingman those first 10 days of combat, or first 10 combat missions in a controlled environment because what we’ve studied over the years of conflict is the first 10 missions are where you’re most likely to lose your fleet. So if you can replicate that first 10 in a controlled environment with a very high degree of fidelity, you’ve greatly increased the probability that they’re going to survive their actual first 10 combat missions. So Red Flag is the closest we can get to real combat without actually shooting people.”
Allies are a key part of the Red Flag exercises, especially as the F-35 becomes the plane flown by most of our closest allies, from Britain to Israel to Australia and beyond. But the toughest, most realistic exercises at Red Flag occur when it’s only American pilots flying against each other.
During those Red Flag-3 exercises they integrate space and cyber weapons into the fight, including those the F-35 possesses. Those capabilities make are “so effective that we have to be very careful that in a real world scenario we don’t hurt ourselves allowing them to play.”
Then he gets back to the point at hand. “So, to answer your question, it has tremendous capability. We’re in the early stages of exploring how to get the most effectiveness out of cyber and space, but we’re integrating it into the Air Operations Center; we’re integrating it into the combat plan; and it is absolutely the way of the future. And you’re right, the AESA radar has tremendous capacity to play in that game.”
Boil all that down and it comes to this. Gen. Hostage is saying that the F-35’s cyber capabilities are so effective — combined with space assets, which are often difficult to distinguish in effect from cyber capabilities — that the planes have to stop using them so the pilots can shoot at each other.
The obvious question that arises from this is, how can a radar system also be a cyber weapon? We’ve all seen those World War II movies where the radar dish sweeps back and forth. The energy beams out, strikes the enemy plane and comes back as a blip. What makes an AESA radar special is the fact that it beams energy in digital zeroes and ones — and the beam can be focused. This allows the radar to function as both a scanning radar, a cyber weapon and an electronic warfare tool.
AESA Radar, Cyber And IADS
Here’s an excellent explanation for how we go from radio and radar and military systems that are not connected to the Internet yet remain vulnerable to hacking that I’ve cribbed from my deputy, Sydney Freedberg, from a recent piece he wrote in Breaking Defense about cyberwar. An enemy’s radios and radars are run by computers, so you can transmit signals to hack them. If the enemy’s computers are linked together then your virus can spread throughout that network. The enemy does not have to be connected to the Internet. You just need the enemy’s radios and radar to receive incoming signals – which they have to do in order to function.
So, as a former top intelligence official explained to me about two years ago, the AESA radar’s beams can throw out those zeros and ones to ANY sort of receiver. And an enemy’s radar is a receiver. His radios are receivers. Some of his electronic warfare sensors are also receivers.
But neither Hostage nor many others I spoke with were willing to be specific on the record about how effective the AESA radar, working with the aircraft’s sensors like the Distributed Aperture System and its data fusion system, will be. So the following is information culled from conversations over the last three months with a wide range of knowledgeable people inside government and the defense industry, as well as retired military and intelligence officers.
As the F-35 flies toward the Chinese coast and several hundred incoming PLAAF J-20s streak toward them in the scenario outlined in the first piece of this series, spoofing (using the enemy’s own systems to deceive him) will be a major part of our attack.
Enemy radar may well show thousands of F-35s and other aircraft heading their way, with stealth cross-sections that appear to match what the Chinese believe is the F-35’s cross section. Only a few hundred of them are real, but the Chinese can’t be certain which are which, forcing them to waste long-range missiles and forcing them to get closer to the US and allied F-35s so they can tell with greater fidelity which ones are real. The Chinese will try and use Infrared Search and Track (IRST) sensors, which have shorter ranges but provide tremendous fidelity in the right weather conditions. But that, of course, renders them more vulnerable to one sensor on the F-35 that even the plane’s critics rarely criticize, the Distributed Aperture System (DAS).
Sensors, Data And Decisions
The DAS is a remarkably sensitive and discriminating set of six sensors that gives the pilot data not just from in front of his aircraft, but directly below, above and to the sides — in military parlance he’s got 360 degree situational awareness. How sensitive is the system? I’ve been told by two sources that the DAS spotted a missile launch from 1,200 miles away during a Red Flag exercise in Alaska. But DAS, just as with the older Defense Support Satellites used to search the world for missile launches, may not know exactly what it’s looking at right away.
That’s where the F-35’s data fusion library comes in, combing through threat information to decide what the plane has detected. The plane, after combing through thousands of possible signatures, may suggest the pilot use his Eletro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) or his AESA radar to gather more data, depending on the situation. The F-35 that spots the apparent missile launch will share its data with other F-35s and the Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC), which will be managing all the data from US and allied aircraft and satellites so that bigger computers on the ground can crunch the data from those sensors and make recommendations if any single plane hasn’t gathered enough information with enough fidelity. (Of course, the CAOC can also do that whole command thing and coordinate the F-35s flying with other aircraft, ships and ground troops.)
The loop will be complete once a target is identified. Then the plane’s fusion center will recommend targets, which weapons to use and which targets should be killed first. Given the Chinese government’s vast and persistent espionage enterprise it won’t be surprising if the J-20s boast some of the F-35’s capabilities, but I have yet to speak with anyone in the Pentagon or the intelligence community who says the Chinese appear to have developed software and sensor capabilities as good as those on the F-35.
Spoofing And Electronic Warfare
The other side of the cyber conflict is what is usually called electronic warfare, though separating cyber and electronic warfare becomes awfully difficult in the F-35. The AESA radar plays a prominent role in this arena too, allowing sharply controlled and directed energy attacks against enemy planes, surface to air radar and other targets.
While Growlers, Boeing’s EA-18G, have extremely powerful, broadband jamming capabilities, the F-35’s combination of stealth and highly specific electronic beams is a better combination, Hostage tells me during the interview.
“If you can get in close, you don’t need Growler-type power. If you’re stealthy enough that they can’t do anything about it and you can get in close, it doesn’t take a huge amount of power to have the effect you need to have,” he says.
One of the keys to spoofing is, I’ve heard from several operators, being careful to avoid overwhelming the enemy with high-power jamming. That’s another problem with the Growler approach.
“The high power-jamming is ‘I’ll just overwhelm them with energy since I can’t get in there and do magic things with what they’re sending to me,'” Hostage says.
Much of this electronic warfare, as well as the F-35’s intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) capabilities, are made possible by a core processor that can perform more than one trillion operations per second. This allows the highly classified electronic warfare suite made by BAE Systems to identify enemy radar and electronic warfare emissions and, as happens with the EOTS, recommend to the pilot which target to attack and whether he should use either kinetic or electronic means to destroy it.
In our interview, Gen. Hostage points to the plane’s ability to gather enormous amounts of data, comb through it and very rapidly and simply present the pilot with clear choices as a key to its success.
“People think stealth is what defines fifth gen[eration aircraft]. It’s not the only thing. It’s stealth and then the avionics and the fusion of avionics. In my fourth gen airplane, I was the fusion engine, the pilot was the fusion engine. I took the inputs from the RHWG, from the Radar Homing Warning Gear, from the radar, from the com, multiple radios, from my instruments. I fused that into what was happening in the battlespace, all the while I’m trying to do the mechanical things of flying my airplane and dodging missiles and all these sorts of things,” he says.
Combine the fusion engine, the ISR sensors, the designed-in stealth, the advanced helmet, and the eight million lines of software driving what it can do, add weapons to the stealthy weapon bays, add a pilot and that is what allows you to “break the enemy’s kill chain,” as Hostage likes to put it.
“What we’ve done with the fifth generation is the computer takes all those sensory inputs, fuses it into information. The pilot sees a beautiful God’s eye view of what’s going on. And instead of having to fuse three pieces of information and decide if that’s an adversary or not, the airplane is telling him with an extremely high degree of confidence what that adversary is and what they’re doing and what all your wingmen are doing. It’s a stunning amount of information,” Hostage says.
Combine that information with the kinetic, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities of the F-35 and we may know why South Korea, Japan, Israel and Australia have all recently committed to buy substantial numbers of F-35s, in spite of the aircraft being behind schedule, facing significant technical problems and, of course, being really expensive overall. Several sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations — from government and industry — tell me that each country went in to discussions with the Pentagon with a great deal of skepticism. But once country representatives received the most highly classified briefing — which I hear deals mostly with the plane’s cyber, electronic warfare and stealth capabilities — they all decided to buy. That kind of national and fiscal commitment from other countries may say more about the aircraft’s capabilities than anything else. After all, some of those countries are staring right at China, the country that has rolled out two supposedly fifth generation fighters. And Russia, the other country trying hard to build a rival to the F-22 and the F-35, sits not far behind.