CAPITOL HILL: How smart is too smart? When F-35 Joint Strike Fighters flew simulated combat missions around Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, their pilots couldn’t see the “enemy” radars on their screens.
Why? The F-35s’ on-board computers analyzed data from the airplanes’ various sensors, compared the readings to known threats, and figured out the radars on the training range weren’t real anti-aircraft sites — so the software didn’t even display them. While the software and pilots on older aircraft hadn’t noticed the imperfections and inaccuracies in how the Eglin ranges portrayed the enemy, the F-35s’ automated brains essentially said, “Fake! LOL!” and refused to play.
The Eglin anecdote is just one example of how the F-35 Lightning and its twin-engine older brother, the F-22 Raptor — collectively called fifth-generation fighters — are overturning how the Air Force operates. The sophistication of fifth gen sensors, software, and stealth requires the Air Force to overhaul training and network infrastructure. They even challenge longstanding assumptions about who makes what decisions and who’s in command. If the pilot of a fifth gen jet infiltrating enemy airspace has a clearer picture of the battle than senior officers further back on a vulnerable AWACS command plane or back at base in Air Operations Center, why should they be telling him or her what to do?
Information — the sensors to collect it, the software to make sense of it — becomes the critical contribution of 5th gen aircraft, pilots argue, which means you need to evaluate them on different criteria than traditional fighters. “When I first started flying the Raptor, I was enamored with how powerful the airplane was,” said Lt. Col. David Berke, a Marine F-35B pilot who’s also served in Air Force units. “The F-22 is just so fast, (but) the least impressive thing the F-22 is is how powerful it is.”
What matters isn’t the G forces the plane can pull or the Mach number it can hit, Berke argued, but the awareness it can give you of what’s going on. “In the 21st century battlefield, without information, the fastest airplane out there is the first one to die.”
Berke spoke this morning alongside three Air Force pilots at a Capitol Hill event organized by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute. Presiding were Air Force Warfare Center commander Maj. Gen. Glen VanHerck and former Gulf War air commander David Deptula, a frequent contributor to Breaking Defense (and father of one of the pilot panelists).
It was Lt. Col. Scott Gunn, an F-35A pilot based at Eglin, who told the training anecdote. Eglin isn’t some backwater base with inadequate equipment. It’s the crown jewel of Air Force test programs, Gunn said, “but a lot of those precious resources are just not quite enough for what you need in fifth gen.
“A lot of the simulated threat surface-to-air emitters that we have are basically a little radar dish on a stick that’s attached to a computer,” which tells the radar what signals to emit to replicate a threat, Gunn said. “Well, the F-35 sees that and says, ‘nope, that’s not the threat.’ So it ignores it.
“We’re finding we almost have to dumb down the system a little bit to say, ‘all right, well, it’s not exactly the threat, but it’s good enough to display it,'” Gunn said. “If you don’t have something that’s really replicating the threat, you’re not getting the training you need, because the airplane is too smart.”
The sensors on the F-35 and F-22 suck up so much data, in fact, that the communications networks on the aircraft can’t transmit most of it. Compared to the amount of data you have to share, the network connections available to share it make you feel like you’re on an old dial-up modem, Gunn said: The Air Force needs to upgrade the network infrastructure to carry that data across the force.
Once the networks can carry the load, however, you have the potential for what airpower theorists like Deptula call the combat cloud. Just as commercial cloud computing services untether companies from proprietary data centers and let them access their data anywhere (in theory), the combat cloud could untether air warfare from purpose-built command posts — be it AOCs on the ground or AWACS in the air — and let frontline pilots get the vital data in their own cockpits.
“Before…we would need to have the entire intelligence, surveillance, & reconnaissance constellation of aircraft and satellites all working together to get us some information that’s going to be pretty old” by the time they reach the target, Maj. Andrew Stolee, an F-22 pilot, told reporters after the panel. “Now, instead of waiting for all that stuff to be built in at an Air Operation Center somewhere, that information is now being immediately displayed to people that are in aircraft in the AO (Area of Operations) that can immediately apply some sort of effect, either kinetic (e.g. missiles) or non-kinetic (e.g. jamming).”
If you rewrite rules of engagement to reflect how fifth gen aircraft can sense, fuse, share, and act on information, Stolee argued, “it enables us to delegate decision-making from much higher levels down to individual cockpits.”
“That’s all because we’re seeing the same picture and able to operate in places others cannot,” Stolee emphasized. Compared to current 4th gen fighters like the F-15, F-16, and F-18, fifth gen planes can get closer to the enemy, maximizing the collection capacity of their sensors, the pilots on the panel said. Then their onboard computers can fuse the data into a coherent picture and their datalinks transmit it to other aircraft — including the fouth gen planes, multiplying their effectiveness.
Currently, “the limitation…on that airplane is me,” said the fourth panelist, F-22 pilot Maj. David Deptula (son of Lt. Gen. Deptula). “It’s the person sitting in the cockpit with the giant color display. (We want to) get to a point that we’re passing information from machine to machine seamlessly.” Then what one aircraft sees will display on other aircrafts’ screens, automatically and at machine speeds, without a human intermediary slowing down the process or garbling the information.
“The kind of ubiquitous and seamless sharing of information (among) fifth generation aircraft like the F-22 and F-35…could at some point render a new paradigm for the command and control of military forces,” the elder Deptula told me. “This new paradigm sees an evolution of the (Air Force) command and control tenet of ‘centralized control—decentralized execution, to ‘centralized command—distributed control—decentralized execution.'”
“Separate aircraft dedicated to command and control (e.g. AWACS) will become less necessary,” Deptula said, “(as) information from all aircraft, ships, spacecraft, land sensors, etc. is integrated.”
Instead of any one aircraft or command post, the fulcrum of the force becomes the network itself — and the artificial intelligences that, hopefully, make sense of the data for us. (This “human-machine teaming” is central to the Pentagon’s high-tech Third Offset Strategy). Instead of America’s advantage lying in any one aircraft, it would reside in the whole force — a complex system that, hopefully our adversaries will find much harder to replicate than our planes.